reading pile


Reading Pile

Lots being read at the moment, but little time to actually give a meaty review of anything on the blog. Counter Power is being read for a review at the Ecologist, and is a splendid book. The Goldsworthy biography of Caesar is immense and as in-depth as you could possibly require, right down to tactics used in particular battles. Reading Persian Fire at the moment – it’s as wonderful as Rubicon. Flicking through the others and hope to get to the David Goodis novels within the next couple of weeks.

As you can see, lots of classical history and crime being consumed at the moment – all research (and enjoyment) for a future writing project (knee-deep in edits of Red Sun book 4 at the moment).

Little time for reading for just pleasure, such is the way of things…


On Deception – Houdini

Houdini’s On Deception is a rather interesting little book (and it is indeed a slim volume). He doesn’t give away any trade secrets – as you’d expect – but is a collection of essays on different ways in which deception occurs, from stagecraft, mediums, to more serious deceptions against the public, including theft and ways of relieving people of money.

It was originally published in 1906 and caused a bit of a stir. No doubt criminals weren’t too happy on many of their ways being exposed and there are some classic techniques exposed here that have manifested novels and films (and indeed, that was one of the reasons I wanted to read this myself). It’s not just an exposition of the criminal underworld, though – Houdini goes to great lengths to explain some tricks of the trade of getting out of handcuffs, picking locks, through to sword swallowing and coping with being bitten by a poisonous snake as part of a show. What it doesn’t do is give you much of an investigation of the nature of deception, of the psychology behind such trickery.

Houdini does enjoy giving a bit of a kicking to his rivals – mostly because they’re a bit crap compared to him – and his ego isn’t constrained much. Something else that comes to mind is that only relentless practice and remarkable dedication to the craft made him what he was: you don’t get the skills (and an ego) like his without painstaking effort.


Inspector Imanishi Investigates – Seicho Matsumoto

Crime novels fascinate me. The mechanisms are far more interesting than in other genres, I have to admit, even fantasy fiction, perhaps because the mechanisms are vital to the success of the novel. Within reasonably limited conventions – a murder, someone must solve it – comes a huge number of subtleties, approaches, deceptions, which keep the reader on his or her toes. The frustration to solve the puzzle within is a great narrative engine. It also requires a huge amount of complex planning on the author’s part; this isn’t something that can be churned out, James Patterson aside.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates is set in 1960s Tokyo, where the post-war young find themselves entranced by young musicians, actors and writers. The assiduous middle-aged Inspector Imanishi, someone not in tune with the affairs of the young, finds himself trying to solve a case in which a man in his 50s is found bludgeoned to death on the railway tracks. There are next to no clues other than that a few witnesses state the victim was thought to be talking to a man with a strange regional dialect. Imanishi needs to discover the identity of both the victim as well as the murderer, which seems practically impossible at the start.

He ends up trekking to various parts of Japan, obscure districts that require long, late train journeys, following leads that turn out, at first, to be futile. But it is the act of investigation that maps out the difficult case: the process of elimination starts to carve a possible reality from the confusion. Presently Imanishi discovers that the victim was a popular policeman, now retired, from a distant province, and he then becomes drawn to the Nouveau Group, an enigmatic, popular and influential group of writers, musicians and artists.

Imanishi’s investigations become something of a personal quest. Though drawn out over some time, and occasionally – due to frustrations with the case and the nature of police work – fading from priority, it is clear that he’s on to something. There are a spectacular number of what you initially think are red-herrings, but which turn out to be crucial clues and plot-points, and the further Imanishi explores the narrative, the more complex and subtle – and thrilling – it becomes. The novel continues at a relaxed pace, the prose – self-consciously minimalist, understated, noir – is an effective vehicle in permitting the plot’s complexities to stand out. Imanishi’s family life is again kept to the bare minimum, perhaps testament to his assiduousness and diligence in dealing with the case.

As with all my favourite crime novels, the investigations spotlight the concerns of a particular country, and Matsumoto does a splendid job in controlling the mood and atmosphere, both from city to rural locations. It’s a great book; subtle, under-stated and smart, however, it’s probably not for everyone.


Christopher Priest – The Islanders

Christopher Priest is an illusionist. If you have read some of his previous novels, you will know to expect to have the rug pulled from under your feet. You will know that the people you see on the page aren’t who you expect them to be or, if they are, they will be more slippery than Michael Gove’s bottom lip.

Entering the Dream Archipelago, Priest’s heady collection of microcosms and forgotten places, was a welcome treat for a fan. And for fans, there are Easter eggs galore: take the presence of writer, Moylita Kaine, whose first manifestation in The Islanders comes as a writer of fan letters to another novelist. We read about her first efforts to become a writer, and that she has finally written a novel, called The Affirmation.

The Affirmation? I thought to myself. Priest wrote a novel called The Affirmation, of course, but I did a little digging. I recalled a short story, ‘The Negation’ (1978) which was first included in a rare collection called The Infinite Summer, and then later the Dream Archipelago book. ‘The Negation’ featured Moylita Kaine as an established novelist. In The Islanders, she crops up again several times, and also (I think) the character with whom she interacted in ‘The Negation’, a minor finale playing out decades later. These connections between books and time will please many of those who have read a lot of Priest’s output: they’re not explicit, they’re elegant inclusions, all part of Priest’s dreamscape.

But back to The Islanders.

There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least, there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.

Chaster Kammeston, a novelist who will make an appearance later in the novel, explains this in his introduction. The book is presented as non-fiction, a strange collection of tales or accounts, letters, confessions and so on, from the Islanders of the Dream Archipelago. Nothing is certain, as the reader is plunged into mock-travel guide accounts of the many (and there are indeed many) islands that make up the Archipelago. Mixing the island names and patois, the reader is given time to absorb Priest’s fragile reality.

It seems an odd way to go about presenting a novel – if indeed by now it seems a novel – when suddenly the plot appears in an unconventional, non-fiction manner. Characters are reappearing in others’ accounts. Events begin to match up, overlap, contradict each other. Subtleties become extremely important: or, if you’re a Priest fan, possible further deceptions. The reading experience is extraordinary. It’s like a magic eye puzzle: the closer you are to the text, the less you might see. You must be vaguely passive, absorbing the shapes within, to see anything of note (and even then you might be deceived), and yet remain at all times alert. Adam Roberts, in his splendid review, discusses the phrase ‘Ergodic literature’ with reference to reading the novel.

The central plot? That depends on both what you mean by ‘central’ and ‘plot’. Certainly some of the key narratives include: a murder of Commis, a professional mime artist, and those who were involved in and around the theatre at the time, their stories before and thereafter; a radical social thinker, Caurer, and her relationship with literary sensation Chaster Kammeston, his reputation and his death (note: he wrote the introduction to the novel); add to that a famous debauched painter, Dryd Bathurst, a creative tunnelling artist, those who seek to map islands with drones, those interested in the spurious trial of the man executed for supposedly murdering Commis; and keep in mind that all of these and many more micro-narratives connect or glance off each other in all sorts of subtle ways. Ultimately you begin to wonder what the plots actually are, if indeed there are any, or if it is all a vast, blissful game in a setting comprised of multiple cultures, topographies, economies and currencies.

I should also stress some of the beauty here. Priest has always written in a minimalist, deliberately mannered and very English style, which serves his fiction perfectly, because it does not get in the way of the underground complexities. Often, some of the above narratives are heartbreaking, mesmerising, or achingly tender in places. This is certainly his most refined prose.

Ultimately, it is a remarkable book that seems to be a logical continuation, even summation, of all of Priest’s themes to date. What’s more, all of this literary playfulness does not detract from the fact that it is a wonderful, entertaining novel.

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a reading experience this much.


Dark Mountain Anthology Review

My review of Dark Mountain issue 2 is up at the Ecologist. The book is a fascinating read around the themes of new and thought-provoking political movement.

The essays within collectively reject much of what we have become used to in environmental philosophy. Notions of stewardship are abandoned. Humans are no longer separate to the natural world; they are a part of it. Many of the results of current environmental thinking will simply contribute to a system that is inherently destined to destroy the natural world. The anthology attempts to grapple with these concerns and does not always use direct science as the method of exploration. In the construction of a greener society, there is plenty of room for philosophy and the creative arts.

Read the rest of the review here. I recommend taking a look at what the Dark Mountain Project is all about. Even if you’re not all that interested in environmentalism, the project manages to combine creative writing and the arts with a political movement – something that’s not all that common. I summed it up as: “part dystopian poetry along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; part post-apocalyptic River Cottage with the rest being a slice of philosophy”, which means I found it very unique indeed, and a genuinely different way of thinking.


Recent Reads

Recently I’ve been very much interested in books with a great sense of place, and I’ve discovered a phenomenal text – Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness, by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, who are poets, though this is prose (of a very beautiful kind). It’s aim is to examine edgelands, areas of our landscape where urban meets rural, on the fringes of society; parts of the UK that have been overlooked or simply considered offensive to our senses. Not exactly wastelands, for they are very much places of function – from paths to lofts, to ruins to motorway verges, to canals and landfills. These are the places at the periphery of our vision, there perhaps out of accident or simply because we choose not to look.

On summer nights, the edgelands become the domain of boy racers and their newly pimped rides. Some are there to put their souped-up engines through their paces, roaring down the long straight strips, burning rubber in the empty car parks. Others are there to park with doors open, lid lifted on a polished engine, oversized sound system cranked up full. These cars are electric purple, crimson, lurid green… Third- or fourth-hand, they changed owners for hundreds, not thousands. Then one day a customiser spotted them, the old Capris and Golfs, the former rep cars and hot hatches. Someone saw their potential and was willing to sink hours and pounds into giving them another heyday. Mutton dressed as lamb, they stand in resolute defiance of government scrappage schemes, ecological maxims, the laws of suburban driving. These are edgelands chimeras, beautiful, garish freaks.

For a more in-depth review, see the Independent. It’s beautiful, an important book full of the best descriptive writing I’ve read in a long time.

Finally, my review of Walk! A Celebration of Striding Out is up at the Ecologist:

Walking is a simple pastime but in Walk!, Colin Speakman imbues it with such romanticism, science, environmentalism and politics, that a country hike becomes an expression of freedom as well as medicine for the body and soul. Perhaps most important of all though, is that Speakman achieves his purpose – to inspire people to get outside and walk.

One of the things I’m really enjoying about reviewing for the Ecologist is the sheer variety of texts and ideas I’ve come across. This is another wonderful book, and really reveals the political and social importance of our simple ‘walk in the country’.


Literary Links

Recently I’ve been engrossed in the news so much that I feel I’ve neglected blogging duties. Sometimes writing about important an issues seems rather irrelevant in the short term. But, on the topic of the riots, I remembered that the Guardian last year blogged their top ten literary riots:

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

“Enter a company of mutinous Citizens with staves, clubs, and other weapons”. Coriolanus opens with the plebs rioting because of lack of food. Menenius disarms them with some choice rhetoric, before Coriolanus stokes them up again with his eloquent insults. “He that depends / Upon your favors swims with fins of lead / And hews down oaks with rushes.”

A book that seems one of great interest to me is being published by VersoBooks – it’s an anthology of climate change short stories, called I’m With The Bears, written by top writers:

World-class novelists envision the terrors of impending climate change.

The size and severity of the global climate crisis is such that even the most committed environmentalists can drift into a state of denial. The award-winning writers collected here have made it their task to shake off this nagging disbelief, bringing the incomprehensible within our grasp and shaping an emotional response to mankind’s unwitting creation of a tough new planet. From T. C. Boyle’s account of early eco-activists, to Nathaniel Rich’s comic fantasy about a marine biologist haunted by his youth, and David Mitchell’s vision of a near future where oil sells for $800 a barrel—these ten provocative, occasionally chilling, sometimes satirical stories bring a human reality to disasters of inhuman proportions.

Finally, for the ladies out there, have you ever considered making a dress out of your old books?


Recent Reading

My review of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, by Sandra Steingraber, is now up at The Ecologist. It’s a terrific book.

One of the greatest moral bargaining chips in the environmental movement is the fate future generations: to think of the children. Those who employ such arguments suggest that it’s our children who will be the ultimate victims of environmental degradation, and it is they who will have lost out on what we ourselves were lucky enough to experience: a cooler climate, pristine forests, greater biodiversity. But those looking to the future are overlooking something crucial: the impact of current climate change and ecological issues on children today.

Raising Elijah is a meticulously researched piece of environmental writing. The book requires little in the way of scientific understanding but despite this, hard facts are dealt with. Local problems are scaled up to be revealed as feeding into complex national or even international issues; topics are placed within the context of corporate greed and politicking. Legal frameworks are analysed against a historical backdrop of scientific understanding. This is a genuine, all-encompassing environmental study.

Here’s the review in full.

The second book this month was Ariana Franlkin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, which is a jolly old Medieval romp featuring Adelia Aguilar, a trained female doctor brought over to England to solve a mystery of child killings. (More complex review in the New York Times.) I really enjoyed this for the most part. The characters were drawn very well, introduced superbly, and the prose was vivid. In places it bordered of parody and the characters (deliberately) became a fraction too much of a caricature, but it was entertaining enough. The one problem with such jolly writing of such a dark period (or even crime writing in general) is that you don’t really take things all that seriously. You don’t bite your nails in anticipation of what might happen next. Or perhaps I’m just a bit grumpy in preferring historical crime books to be Serious.


Recent Reading, Food & Crime

Felicity Lawrence’s Eat Your Heart Out is a fascinating little book, and another one of those important ones. This isn’t an attempt to scare people by revealing what’s in their food, but a look at the structure of the food industry and the impact on society and the environment (and, yes, a little look at the kinds of things we put in our bodies).

From an examination of milk to soya, to sugar to pork, to fats, and a final optimistic look at how things can get better. The general villain of the day is the hugely intensive agricultural corporations (not really a surprise) and big business/supermarkets (the inevitable shape of the capitalist food industry, as Raj Patel shows so eloquently in Stuffed and Starved) that puts profit before land and people.

It’s full of tidbits such as how deregulation of markets has crippled dairy farmers, and at how the biggest benefactors of the Common Agricultural Policy are not farmers (not even the disproportionately wealthy farmers who benefit with even greater subsidies) but giant, transnational food corporations, who get a rebate on the artificially high prices that subsidised agriculture brings. We’re subsidising the markets twice over, handing our EU payments to companies to produce high sugar, high fat, highly processed foods that health experts are telling us we should eat less of. There’s a whole lot of other shadowy stuff that goes on too. Anyway, it’s certainly a must-read for those who are genuinely interested in where their food comes from. For a more in-depth review see here.

Mo Hayder’s Birdman is a tremendously grim book. I read this with an interest in the mechanism of crime fiction, the feints an deceits, the way crimes are committed and certain information is revealed, the whatever-it-is that makes a reader keep on turning, which is an art not often explored. Hayder does this splendidly; you can see the planning that’s gone into the novel, the research, the structure. The action is intense, and it’s actually a rather hard quality to sustain for such a long period of time. The plot skips from clue to threat, without sacrificing logic and entering bizarroland. It all makes perfect sense and, the further you get into the book, the more layers are revealed.

When people talk about gritty books, they seriously need to expand their reading horizons to someone like Hayder. This makes ‘gritty’ fiction seem like a village show cake sale. It’s a seriously intense work, and does not shy away from some of the most horrific qualities a human may possess. From necrophilia to rape (and not rape purely to make a book seem grown up, like you get so much in fiction today – “Hey, let’s include a rape to make things nasty” (and what is that all about anyway?). No, this is truly brutal, life-ruining, gut-wrenching horror.

I like Hayder’s style, too. It’s written with an eye to thrillers, of course – minimal, precise, direct, yet it’s also got a touch of the poetic that has clearly been restrained. Despite the bleakness, there’s just enough humanity to keep you going.

All in all, not one for the faint-hearted.


Recent Reading

I’m going through a long non-fiction phase at the moment. I tend to do this from time to time, when fiction just doesn’t seem to hit the right spot. Also, I sense it’s when I’m in the creation phase of a novel, that first half of the book, where I become a sponge for information.

Anyway, onto Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, by Nicholas Shaxson. I am not an economist, though I have studied the subject. Nor am I an accountant, though I have one to process the meagre funds that writers earn (simply because I fear the numbers now). But anyone who pays tax – so that will be all of you – should find this book endlessly fascinating. At the same time, you will find an inner anger brewing at the state of the world, and begin to think that politicians have less of a grip on the world than you previously thought.

Now, this book covers a range of topics, from the Elf Scandal, the history of tax havens or ‘secrecy jurisdictions’, the formation of the Eurodollar (huge moment in global finance), through to the deregulation of the banking industry and the financial catastrophes of late, and finishing with an examination of the most curious beast, the City of London Corporation. It’s a fascinating read throughout – these could be subjects that send to sleep even those with a disposition to hard economics, but Shaxson does a splendid job in making this subject… well, exciting. It’s interesting. It’s interesting because he shows just how this affects the world.

At its most simplest:

Imagine you are in your local supermarket and you see well-dressed individuals zipping through a ‘priority’ checkout behind a red velvet rope. There is also a large item, ‘extra expenses’, on your checkout bill, which subsidises their purchases. Sorry, says the supermarket manager, but we have no choice. If you did not pay half their bill, they would shop elsewhere. Now pay up.

Shaxson demonstrates, with no political bias (this is not a left or right issue), how companies generally avoid tax. Multinational corporations can spread their costs to high tax areas (internal transfer pricing) and their profits to low tax areas, contributing very little to the countries in which they work.

But then we get on to how offshore banking / tax havens / secrecy jurisdictions are scandalous. Not only do they enable corrupt dictators, criminals, or the drug trade – via offering secret zones in which to clean money – but they weaken developing economies, keep the poor poor (for every dollar of aid going into Africa, ten dollars comes out into offshore havens), and force governments to capitulate to lower corporate taxes, forcing the tax burden on all of us, so that we should pay for welfare, the roads and rail, the educated workforce, the health of employees – all things companies rely upon to make their profits. Half of World trade passes through tax havens, and which are the largest havens in the world? The City of London and America. Shaxson then goes on to demolish just about every possible justification for tax havens, with examples throughout history.

If you were to read any book on global finances in your life, you could do worse than read this book. At the very least, visit Shaxson’s website and read his fascinating blog.