What I'm Reading

Books Read in 2024

Every year I set myself a target of reading at least sixty books. These are my reviews of the books I've read so far in 2024.

In 2023 I read and reviewed 76 books.

Published by: Bloomsbury, 1996

It's taken me quite a while to read this monumental work from cover to cover. Not because it's a hard read; it isn't at all. It's just that it contains 1,060 densely packed pages of autobiography, reportage, and criticism of a genre that I now realise I know next to nothing about. Picking up a copy of this epic has become a first step of a quest to do something about that.

Robert Gottlieb (1931–2023) was Editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and the New Yorker, so saying that he knew what he was doing in compiling this collection of writing is a gross understatement. His explanatory notes (which are often devoted to explaining the catty squabbles between different factions of jazz's many followers, cliques which had strange names such as the "moldy figs" and the "boppers") are just as entertaining as the articles they introduce. I doubt that many people could have pulled off a project like this as successfully and comprehensively as he did; he gathered an astonishing range of texts, the earliest dating back to 1919 and the latest to 1995, the year of the book's initial publication in the USA.

And what a selection of writers there is. From Cab Calloway to Philip Larkin (back in the days when he was jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph); from Art Blakey to Jean-Paul Sartre; from Jelly Roll Morton to Humphrey Lyttelton, and from Charles Mingus to Dudley Moore. And if you're reeling from the ridiculous cultural reach demonstrated by that brief pick of writers, just wait until you read what they wrote. There isn't a single misfire from start to finish. You're in for a treat.

Published by: Zoop / Fussbudget Productions, 2023

With a prologue relating the tale of how hot-dog salesman and sometime new-age guru George Adamski allegedly had encounters with all manner of extraterrestrial beings and was taken for quick trips to a distinctly verdant version of the planet Venus back in the 1950s (which was well before we discovered that anyone standing unprotected on its surface would be crushed, fried, and melted by sulphuric acid, although not necessarily in that order), a central plot that involves a presidential candidate apparently being abducted by aliens, and enough nods and references to famous UFO cases and notable figures in the field to sink a battleship, you won't be at all surprised to learn that I really, really enjoyed the original comics of Saucer Country and its sequel, Saucer State. They couldn't have been more in my wheelhouse if I'd somehow been able to personally commission Paul and Ryan to create them.

So I was more than a little bit gutted when Saucer State was rather ignominiously cancelled before its final issue was released. In days of yore, when such things happened all you could do was shrug and try to imagine what might have been.

But now there's this thing called crowdfunding, and when Paul Cornell announced on his email newsletter that he and Ryan had set up a project to finish things properly and bring out a definitive book of the whole thing using the Zoop platform, I signed up for it on the spot, because of course I did. I even paid a little bit extra, so that I could have my name listed on the inside back cover of the book because things like that make me inordinately happy for no particular reason.

The completed book arrived this week, and it's a delight. Despite the bonkers plot, the story turns out to make complete sense—at least it does if you're familiar with the sort of material which graces the pages of the Fortean Times every month. There are some lovely nods to the wilder fringes of Forteana and conspiracy theorists will have fun spotting all manner of references to real-world shenanigans; there's even a Republican presidential candidate who is every bit as self-obsessed (and orange) as the version we've been saddled with. And without spoiling anything I can definitely say that the long-awaited finale delivers the goods in style. Reading this took me to my happy place and no abductions were necessary in achieving that objective. And yes, my name's on the inside back cover. I checked.

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2023

This collection of short fiction by one of the UK's greatest creative writers is a mind-bending demonstration of the depth and range of his interests. Yes, the novella What We Can Know About Thunderman is a relentless examination of a fictionalised version of the industry where Mr Moore first made a name for himself, the comics industry. But there are also works which, amongst many other entertaining things, show a deep understanding of cosmology and quantum physics, a love of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the Beat Poets, and of course a fascination with the mysterious world of Forteana, whose themes and tropes have cropped up frequently in his work over the past six (!) decades (I was reading his Curt Vile strips in UK music newspaper Sounds when I was a teenager, and they were a strong influence on my own early scribblings as a wannabe comics artist; I'm very sure that I wouldn't have ended up drawing stuff for Motörhead if it hadn't been for Mr. Moore's example).

To say more would spoil things. Just let an intellect whose erudition and macabre sense of humour are both completely off the scale take you by the hand and lead you down some deliciously dark and unexpected paths...

Published by: Harper Collins, 2023

Last month my brother Dave and I went to see Rush's vocalist, bass and keyboard player Geddy Lee talk about his new book at the Barbican Hall in London. The ticket price included a copy of the book in hardback and since then I've been enthusiastically reading about his life and upbringing. And because it's Geddy we're talking about here, I've also been listening to him read the audiobook as well (which comes with a couple of tracks that were outtakes from his 2000 solo album, My Favourite Headache). I already have many of the books that were written by Rush's drummer; the late Neil Peart (or Pratt, to his band mates) was responsible for almost all of the band's lyrics and he was a gifted writer of prose, too. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise to discover that Geddy is as well.

Geddy's parents were Polish Jews who first met in Auschwitz. Geddy was named Gershon after his maternal grandfather who was murdered in the Holocaust. Many of Geddy's aunts and uncles were also murdered by the Nazis and his father's experience in the camps was such that he died of heart failure at the shockingly early age of 45, when Geddy was just twelve years old. The early parts of the book make for sombre reading, sometimes brutally so. But they also reveal just how determined the young Jewish boy from Toronto was, once he decided that the life he wanted to lead was one spent making rock music together with his friend from school, a blonde kid called Aleksandar...

Even though they rapidly gained a reputation as one of the genre's more cerebral bands, Rush embraced the hedonism of the rock and roll life just as enthusiastically as their peers. There are plenty of tales of excess, trashed hotel rooms, and run-ins with law enforcement as well as the consumption of large quantities of acid, dope and coke, but I soon picked up on the fact that the band weren't the sort of guys who would test things to destruction. Geddy and his bandmates were smart enough to see where that road led and chose a different path. That was, perhaps, a major factor in their longevity as a functioning creative powerhouse. Rush retain their well-deserved reputation as musicians who were a profound influence on other musicians, your humble scribe very much included.

The book helped me to understand much of the band's antics on and off stage. For example I finally get why Geddy wore a t-shirt that just said Blah Blah Blah for most of the Snakes and Arrows tour.

There is so much joy in this book. Even with the profound sadness that pervaded much of the band's later history and the event which led to its eventual conclusion, this book contains love and laughter in truly prodigious amounts. I've read some rock and roll autobiographies that left me absolutely certain that I'd never, ever want to hang out with the personalities involved. Some are perfunctory accounts that are so miserable they leave you wishing you could slap the person who wrote the book around the head a few times until they realised just what a privileged and glorious life they were leading. But very few leave the reader feeling that they'd been a part of the fun while it was happening. My Effin' Life does exactly that. It's the sort of book that will make you wish you'd been fortunate enough to count the band as your friends and—even better—it gives you a pretty good idea of what things would have been like if they were.

Required reading for any rock aficionado.

Published by: Orbit, 2015

Despite the hardback copy of this running to some 466 pages, I burned through the whole thing in three sessions. I was thoroughly gripped by the tale of the people on board a generation starship as it journeys to the eponymous moon of a planet in the Tau Ceti system and what happens after they get there. The rest of this review is going to address specific things that happen in the book, so there are going to be SPOILERS ahead. If you don't want to know what happens, you should stop reading now.

Still with me? Good.

The book is first and foremost a metaphorical punch in the face to the gung-ho, "We have the technology to colonise Mars right now" attitudes exhibited by Elon Musk and his ilk. Robinson is clearly very angry about the lackadaisical approach they have to terraforming's practicalities and how they ignore the fact that anyone embarking on such a project would not only be placing their own lives at risk, they would also be doing the same with the lives of any descendants that they choose to have. That punch in the face comes in the novel's closing pages, but it is (in my opinion) one that is very well deserved.

Because the book chronicles multiple tragedies. There's the tragedy of all the people who die during the course of the events that the book recounts; those that die on the surface of Pandora when it becomes evident that there is some form of life there which is inimical to human existence; those that die in the conflicts between factions of the starship's crew as they try to decide on which alternative plan of action to take as a result; and those that die from the accidents and stresses of the voyage itself. However for me the fundamental tragedy of the book is that of its narrator, the artificial intelligence that operates the ship and its systems. Oddly, the ship is never referred to as anything other than "the ship" or just "Ship" but the AI is addressed as "Pauline" at several points as the plot unfolds. By the end of the book, the AI has become its most quirky, funny, and engaging character (and this is saying a lot, because Robinson has a rare skill at writing believable characters). The AI's examination of metaphor and narrative in deciding how to fulfil the task that one of the other principal characters has set it is full of deep insight and occasional despair at just how weird human cognition and discourse really are. There is infinite promise in its intelligence, but at the end of the book it is irretrievably lost and none of the characters who worked with it seem to have even considered the idea that measures should have been taken to preserve it somehow. There's not even a "Oops. My bad."

Robinson's solution to the Fermi Paradox is a bleak one: interstellar travel doesn't work. Terraforming takes too long to be viable. An ecology will only thrive on the planet where it originated, and any attempt to transplant it elsewhere will fail, because there are simply too many variables involved, and potential settlers may not discover the important ones until it's too late. The book's central message has much in common with Robinson's other work, particularly The Ministry for the Future, which I read last year. There are no aliens roaming the cosmos, because they're either dead or they've figured out that the only way for a species to stand any chance of long-term survival is to stay at home and take better care of the planet where it originated. Anything else is at best a distraction, at worst a catastrophe that is waiting to happen.

Published by: Fourth Estate, 2010

At first I thought that the vivid imagery that Hilary Mantel's prose was conjuring up in my head was because of my familiarity with the landscape in which it is set. Many of the events which take place in the first few pages of her autobiography occur in locations around Norfolk; my parents lived in High Kelling for many years and the book's opening scene records Dame Hilary's feelings as she moves out of Owl Cottage in Reepham, a genteel and quaintly compact market town where my sister and her family have lived for more than a decade. But it didn't take me long to realise that it was the quality of her writing which was working its magic, not my sense of place. Oh, to be able to write like that.

The book is in two main sections. The first covers Dame Hilary's early years growing up in a Catholic household in the north of England. The sectarian aspects seem odd (possibly because religion never really "took" with me; given the childhood I had, the oft-repeated line of "suffer the little children" had very different connotations and I decided that I wanted nothing to do with any deity, real or otherwise, who was cool with letting stuff like that happen to me, or anyone else). The excerpts from Catholic prayers underline the strangeness—and the glorification of suffering, which is, let's face it, profoundly twisted—but at the same time they show how she assembled the bones of her writing. For me, the most profound of all the insights she grants the reader in the entire book comes from her comment about an "excellent" semicolon in a line from The Litany for a Good Death (the title given to a prayer which begs for its subject to be allowed to die in such a way as to preserve the good grace of the Church, and isn't that a perfect example of just how warped the religious mindset can get?) It allows her to reveal how deeply her convent education and exposure to this sort of liturgical text affected her; "People ask me how I learned to write," she tells us. "That's how."

The second, larger section of the book is an account of her adult life, viewed through the lens of her battle with the disease endometriosis. It's a sad and occasionally grim history of suffering which had its roots in the lack of public access to helpful medical information back then, but which was exacerbated by the chauvinism, incompetence, and a general lack of empathy exhibited by many of the people who were working in the health service in those days. As the book progresses, we begin to see how the ghosts that its title refers to (and the book contains a menagerie of them) might have sprung into being. We are also given glimpses into the development of several of Dame Hilary's works, particularly A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution.

There are omissions and elisions to the story; Dame Hilary was not one for the "Tell all" celebrity autobiography by any stretch of the imagination. But all the way through the book, her carefully developed knack for observation and her mastery of language are wielded in shrewd characterizations of the people she meets (and each of these is accomplished in just a couple of perfectly judged sentences). Her writing is enough of a revelation in itself. Each new encounter had me saying to myself, "Oh, I know this person."

She was one hell of a writer.