Hello, Dear Readers. I write to you today, moved by an unexpected feeling of kinship, of fellowship; today, you and I are going to talk about reading.
When I was about 11 I was given a birthday card by my parents. This one, unusually, had been chosen by my Dad, because it appealed to his sense of humour rather more than to my mother’s. It featured an enormous carniverous dinosaur with its snout firmly stuck in a book, and underneath the caption read ‘Tyrannosaurus Lex’ – which, as you will have realised, means ‘King of the Tyrant Readers’. Even at age 11 I loved reading (and now it’s my job, so yay me!) and I have, over the years, amassed a collection of books, mostly novels, that must by now number in the region of 1,000 volumes.
I’m telling you this because on Sunday I was out for lunch at R’s house, and over the dinner table I was enthusing about a book I was then in the middle of. D interrupted and said “I wish I came across as many good books as you seem to.”
First of all, I read an awful lot, which means I read an awful lot of rubbish. A good book these days is hard to find, as Feargal Sharkey once (almost) taught us. In consequence, my second point is that I know what I like and I know where to seek it out. But D’s comment stuck with me, and so I would like to offer you all some books which come highly recommended by me, and no more than five books in each category. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…
SF & Fantasy
Pandora’s Star / Judas Unchained, by Peter F. Hamilton: Hamilton is a British author who is bringing back the sci-fi epic. I love these two books for their scope, their scale, and the sensation that one can get comfortably lost in these sprawling multi-strand narratives. They form one story, but Hamilton has recently returned to the universe he has devised therein for his new trilogy, of which the first two are The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void. I’ve just finished the first of these: it was so good Ihad to go out that afternoon and buy the next one, even though it’s still only available as a (horribly expensive) hardback.
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville: Mieville is, again, a British author, not yet 30, with a PhD in the Marxist philosophies of international law. He is also the best fantasy author living in the world today – not a claim I make lightly, but with PSS he has entirely rewritten the rules for what fantasy can accomplish. It is an extraordinary book, extraordinarily written; his prose is a beautiful vicious thing. His next book set in the same universe, The Scar, I didn’t find as involving, but the third (and thus far final) in the series, Iron Council, is a phenomenal meditation on civic violence, revolution, martyrdom and iconoclasm. In addition to which, it’s a cowboy story about a train. Read Mieville. Begin with Perdido Street Station. Never look back (not just a metaphor, in that book…) and discover just how involving a story can be.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams: The infamous trilogy in five parts. Adams’s achievement with this was to write one of the funniest books ever written in any language anywhere by anyone at all in any way. I got this book nearly fifteen years ago and remains as fresh and as funny as ever. It still makes me laugh out loud in public places if that’s where I happen to be reading it. Adams was a superb jokesmith, the supreme exponent of that kind of effortless humour that actually takes a great deal of effort to produce, and then even more effort to conceal all the effort involved. One shouldn’t really pluck quotations out of the aether like this, but with Adams you just can’t help yourself: each gag is so perfectly poised, so brilliantly polished, that you tend to stockpile them and then show them to your friends…
“The huge yellow ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
“‘You won’t like it. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.’
‘What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?’
‘You ask a glass of water.'”
Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett: It is very hard to pick a Terry Pratchett discworld novel. There are now more than thirty of them, and of those thirty it is perhaps easier to pick the ones that aren’t very good – my selections in which case would be The Colour of Magic, Eric, and Monstrous Regiment. And that, more or less, is where my reservations cease. The rest range from the merely very very funny to the actively hysterical, and Soul Music is one of the best – a mad, hilarious, anarchic story of the introduction of ‘Music With Rocks In’ to the Discworld, featuring the “best damn fried rats in the city”, characters whom the police cannot stop because they’re “on a mission from Glod” (a dwarf), and a principle character whose name, through some kind of morphic resonance, translates as ‘Bud of the Holly’.
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton: The late Michael Crichton trained as a doctor, originally, and no one wrote edgy contemporaneous SF better. Jurassic Park was his crowning achievement – a traditional ‘science gone mad’ tale in the same mould as Frankenstein, but rather more believable. I first read the unexpurgated version at the age of 9. I still remember the fascinated horror with which I kept turning the pages. Crichton at his best (the Crichton of The Andromeda Strain, for instance), made putting the book down an entirely unfeasible proposition, and Jurassic Park was his masterwork.
So there’s five to be getting on with, but at nearly 1,000 words now I think I’d better continue this discussion later. So let me leave you now in traditional fashion, with a moment of Zen: