5 January, 2011
Via BoingBoing, I've discovered a new online graphic novel* . It looks gorgeous and the story's very promising, but don't get too excited yet, as only the first chapter is online, and that took Daniel Lieske a full year to produce in his spare time.
One of the attractive aspects is that Lieske has used the 'infinite canvas' layout, where the entire chapter is on one web page, navigated by scrolling. I did wonder whether it'd be a problem for future publication – the sections bleed into one another and don't divide at natural page lengths, so translation to book format could be awkward. I'm not sure even a standard ebook format, still involving page turning, would work.
Then I realised that translation to hardcopy mightn't even be intended – that the nearest to book format the Wormworld Saga might ever get could be a tablet computer's app. I'm definitely not crying wolf about the death of 'traditional' books, not least because content is more important than delivery mechanism, but this could mark something of a shift.
*: Not 'comic'. Some consider the term 'graphic novel' pompous, preferring 'comic', but I frequently do use the former, for the simple reason that the best examples aren't comical or comedic. Besides, in this instance the author is specifically structuring it as a novel.
27 January, 2010
It seems a book has been banned* by a US school district for containing 'sexually graphic' content.
Nothing new, but this time the book is a dictionary.
As a commenter at BoingBoing observes, the removal of this salacious text will oblige children to obtain a definition of 'oral sex' online instead. Far more educational.
*: To be fair, 'banned' may mean 'removed from shelves pending the formality of a review', but it should have been self-evident that the complaint was ludicrous, even to a parent named 'Randy Freeman'.
25 September, 2009
As anyone familiar with his work will know, Iain Banks has two parallel careers, publishing 'non-genre' novels as 'Iain Banks' and sci-fi as 'Iain M. Banks'. Several readers like only one or the other, so it's a useful distinction.
However, the latest novel by 'Iain Banks', 'Transition', is being marketed in the USA under the name 'Iain M. Banks', simply for reasons of greater name recognition. If you read a review, be aware which variant is being discussed: though it apparently has a 'parallel universes' theme, it's a 'No-M' book, and is sold as such in, say, the UK.
4 August, 2009
Unfair competition - fair enough
At the risk of repeating myself, I don't 'support' local or independent retailers merely for the sake of supporting them against competition from multinationals and web-based retailers, literally patronising them for being 'traditional'.
It's unrealistic to expect individual shops to compete with the economy-of-scale available to chains and hence to offer lower prices, but if small shops offer genuine value that larger competitors can't (and many specialist shops certainly do), they'll receive my custom. Expertise and customer service are important, and I'm willing to pay a little more for them. An excellent example is my local bike shop: I could easily pay less at Halfords or online, but Colin & Pete run an excellent shop and workshop; I feel valued as an individual customer, and hence value their service.
However, if the sole distinction is sentiment or a twee sense that 'old-fashioned' is inherently A Good Thing, I'll invariably go with price & range of available stock. I don't worry about homogenous high streets – 'cos I buy online anyway.
Which is why I have no sympathy whatsoever for secondhand booksellers who complain that they're being driven out of business by charity shops. Maybe it is unfair that charities face fewer expenses than for-profit retailers. Tough. That doesn't mean they 'deserve' special treatment. Maybe the era of (non-specialist, non-charity) secondhand bookshops has simply passed.
25 November, 2008
Free CSS book
If you're interested in a totally free copy of Snook et al.'s 'The Art & Science of CSS' (£26.59 at Amazon), you have until 23:59 next Tuesday, 2 December, to download it.
Simply provide an e-mail address here in return for a download link. Needless to say, I used a temporary GuerrillaMail address, which expires within an hour, nullifying the spam risk.
15 November, 2008
Review: 'Neverwhere' (graphic novel) (Neil Gaiman/Mike Carey & Glenn Fabry, 2006)
I only have a very vague memory of watching 'Neverwhere' when it was first shown on TV in 1996, but I recall thinking its concepts and story far exceeded the (usual) low-budget BBC execution of it.
I didn't know it at the time, of course, but that was my first exposure to Neil Gaiman's work. Years later, I read 'The Sandman', having frequently heard it recommended. No, I didn't read it, I devoured it; the attraction didn't diminish to mere 'reading' until at least the third time. In the considerable wake of that, I discovered that Gaiman had been responsible for 'Neverwhere' (with Lenny Henry, of all people), and that he'd subsequently released it as a novel, which I loved too.
Hence, I was excited to see that there's a graphic novel adaptation of 'Neverwhere' – and disappointed. As I've implied, I have a certain emotional investment in Gaiman's Londons (yes, plural), and have well-defined visualisations of the characters. I was prepared to be challenged, but not this much: the characters look nothing like I'd expected and, more importantly, nothing like Gaiman described.
The linked image shows Croup, Door & Vandemar, L->R.
I'd expected Croup & Vandemar to be sinister yet anonymous; I'd imagined neat, if seedy, black suits. I hadn't expected a frock coat and top hat, nor a Fifties quiff and sideburns. Gaiman describes them as like "a fox and a wolf", not a rat and a bear, and specifically as wearing greasy black suits of a modern cut.
From the TV series, not to mention Lenny Henry's involvement, I'd expected the Marquis de Carabas to be black (Gaiman merely specifies he has extremely dark skin), but not literally, inhumanly so, a Regency dandy with long white hair and only eyes & mouth visible in an utterly black face.
Worst, I just don't see the need to depict Door as a lingerie model. Gaiman describes her as a girl (i.e. a teenager) in multiple layers of bulky clothes, which is somewhat contradicted in Fabry's version by legs bare but for suspendered stockings (miraculously unladdered). Somehow Gaiman fails to mention a gravity-defying cleavage, too. I'd have thought that rather memorable.
That's rather the point. Fabry's highly-detailed renditions are far more visually distinctive, even dramatic, than Gaiman's and in their own way are equally valid creations (Maybe. Croup & Vandemar's squalid ordinariness is part of their horror, and I just don't see the necessity of 'sexing-up' Door.). As Mike Carey says in the introduction, changes had to be made in adapting the novel to graphical format, in terms of narrative and subplots, and one shouldn't expect 'the comic of the book'. That's entirely valid (though it's a pity to lose Gaiman's prose), but I can't help thinking this deviates a bit too far from the original, even contradicting it.
Oh; and the Americanization: "favor", indeed, and a US phone number on the 'missing' poster. Tsk. It's odd, as there are several very British cultural references in the backgrounds; even a specific brand of teabags in one panel.
I think I recommended the graphic novel, but very, very emphatically not as an alternative to the book, which I recommend far more and which should be read and absorbed first, before the alternative visualisations intrude into the richer world inside one's own imagination.
25 June, 2008
SFX Top 100 Fantasy/SF Authors, pt.2
This is part 2 of the 'SFX Top 100 Fantasy/SF Authors' meme; I've already listed the 67 authors rated amongst the most popular in the UK but which are unfamiliar to me or whose 'work' I strongly dislike. That leaves 33 authors worthy of comment, which is still quite a few; certainly more than would prove an indifference or downright dislike of the sci-fi or fantasy genres.
100. James Herbert
Meh. The few books I've read were okay, in a lightweight 'airport reading' kind of way.
94. Ken MacLeod
My favourite socialist-in-space, though if you're tempted to buy his 'The Human Front' novella as an inexpensive sample of his writing, don't.
91. Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Amongst my favourite sci-fi authors; I provided a few comments on his books whilst reviewing 'Stamping Butterflies' in 2005.
80. Joe Haldeman
It's compulsory to read 'The Forever War', right?
78. George Orwell
The name of this website is a subtle hint as to whether 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' influenced my world-view....
72. Susanna Clarke
'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell' was excellent, not least for the conceit of setting the authorial voice in the 19th Century, but 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu' was stran... er, oddly unsatisfying.
I was surprised to see Clarke rated so strongly as a 'fantasy' novelist, though I suppose elves are a rather major aspect of her fictional world.
71. Stanisław Lem
I'm only familiar with 'Solaris', and wouldn't have managed it without the film (the other film is not bad, by the way), but it's stayed with me.
49. H.P. Lovecraft
Interesting ideas and massively influential – cyclopean, even – but very few of the individual stories are actually any good: most are turgid and formulaic, even if one credits him with defining the formula.
48. Mervyn Peake
If I hadn't lived with his granddaughter at university, I doubt I'd have attempted 'Gormenghast', and I still haven't got very far: his use of language is stunning, but that doesn't make it particularly readable.
47. Jules Verne
Wonderful stories, and surprisingly readable.
46. Alastair Reynolds
At first, I had mixed feelings about his books, even dismissing 'Revelation Space', but somehow they won me over, and I appreciate the hard sci-fi hidden inside the space opera settings. 'Chasm City' might be my favourite of the six I've read, and I'm quite pleased to have two more of his novels in my 'to read' pile.
45. Neal Stephenson
I don't consistently have a single favourite author, but Stephenson might well qualify, from the exhilarating (if overly-expositional) 'Snow Crash' to the elaborate 'Baroque Cycle'.
44. Clive Barker
I haven't read many of his stories, but the iconic puzzle box and Cenobites of 'The Hellbound Heart' are wonderful creations.
39. Michael Moorcock
Seminal, though I tend to favour such 'non-genre' novels as 'Mother London'.
37. Alan Moore
I'm only familiar with his 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' graphic novels and (without knowing who'd written them), his 2000AD strips, but they're impressive.
29. Anne McCaffrey
I read a few of her books in my teens and assume I enjoyed them (though plainly not enough to remember whether I did) but, without wishing to criticise, I don't think books about dragons would grab me nowadays.
27. William Gibson
Excellent. I just wish he was more prolific! If I had to choose one favourite, it'd be 'Idoru'.
25. CS Lewis
I enjoyed his Narnia books as a child (without being aware of the christian subtext), but haven't re-read them within the past couple of decades.
23. John Wyndham
Probably my first exposure to post-apocalyptic fiction and the idea that the best sci-fi is about believable people reacting reasonably to extraordinary situations, not just cyphers inexplicably destroying shiny spaceships.
Curiously, I remember that 'The Chrysalids' was once amongst my favourite books, but now have negligible memories of the content. I'll have to dig out my copy.
20. Stephen King
I don't associate King with the sci-fi or fantasy genres, but I quite like his rambling style and characterisation. Though it's been a few years since I read any of his books, I recall 'The Stand' as a highlight.
18. Arthur C. Clarke
Again, I encountered several of Clarke's books in my teens but haven't felt a need to revisit any.
16. J.K. Rowling
Entertaining but curiously unmemorable – hardly challenging or thought-provoking.
14. Frank Herbert
'Dune' was wonderful; few authors realise a world and culture so thoroughly. The sequels were... challenging, but intermittently good.
13. Peter F. Hamilton
'Mindstar Rising' was... okay. I understand it was his first (successful) novel, so I might try something from later in his career, to see if his writing really developed.
11. Ursula K. LeGuin
I've read one of the Hainish novels, but I forget which, and didn't feel any urge to explore others.
10. Robert Rankin
I read 'The Antipope' a long time ago (1992?). I didn't rate it at all: too much like a Douglas Adams imitation, and I don't particularly like Adams' writing.
9. H.G. Wells
Another author whose writing I discovered when I was too young to appreciate it, and to which I've yet to return, but I can hardly fail to be aware of his work via its influences on others. [And that was a truly horrible sentence.]
8. Philip K. Dick
Unsurprisingly, I know his work best via numerous film adaptations, so have greater awareness of his excellent ideas than his own prose. I remember reading 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'; I preferred 'Blade Runner', but that's hardly a fair comparison.
7. Iain M. Banks
Highly recommended. Excellent ideas, a well-rounded culture (called the Culture) and very well written.
Favourite? Probably 'Excession'.
4. Douglas Adams
I liked 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy', but thought the few substantial jokes were wearing thin by 'The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe' and I haven't liked any of his other books, partly because they seemed to lack coherence and partly because they were so appallingly middle-class English.
3. Neil Gaiman
Mr. G. is everywhere (as reflected by his holding the top two places in a Google search for simply 'Neil'), but I favour his novels (especially 'American Gods' and my first ever exposure to his work, well before I knew his name, 'Neverwhere'), the 'The Sandman' graphic novel and his near-daily blog.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien
Hmm. I love the content of 'Lord Of The Rings', to the extent that I loathe the films, but on re-reading, I'm increasingly finding Tolkien's prose style rather cringeworthy.
1. Terry Pratchett
I'm very glad to see Pratchett at no.1, not only because I enjoy his writing tremendously but because his work epitomises what I want from the very best sci-fi or fantasy: realistic people acting realistically in a realistic setting. I don't particularly like the earliest Discworld books, but novels like 'The Fifth Elephant' are far more substantive and stereotype-subverting; one genuinely cares about Sam Vimes.
25 June, 2008
SFX Top 100 Fantasy/SF Authors, pt.1
According to Neil Gaiman, the latest mass-meme is to copy the 'Top 100 Fantasy/SF Authors' list from SFX magazine and comment on each.
A few clarifications/caveats:
- SFX is a British magazine, so describes popularity here. It's not long since the no.1 author was barely published in the USA.
- The list is of favourite authors, not 'best', by whatever criteria 'best' might be judged. Unashamedly, it's a popularity contest.
- I wouldn't classify myself as a 'fantasy/sci-fi' fan (a fact which surprises people who know about my Golden Demon wins!).
The latter point means that a third of the names on the list mean absolutely nothing to me and though I'd heard of a quarter, I've never read anything by them. Of the remaining 42 authors, I've encountered but forgotten work by five authors and utterly detest the 'work' of four others, which definitely contributed to the reason
I'm not a fan of general sci-fi and, particularly, fantasy fiction.
I'll simply list those 67 authors in this entry, then comment on the remaining 33 in the next entry
Totally unfamiliar; encountering the name for the first time
99. Gwyneth Jones
98. Sara Douglass
93. Olaf Stapledon
92. Michael Marshall Smith
90. Christopher Priest
88. Scott Lynch
87. David Weber
86. M. John Harrison
85. Jacqueline Carey
83. Theodore Sturgeon
82. J.V. Jones
81. Joe Abercrombie
79. Simon Clark
76. Charles de Lint
69. Alfred Bester
68. Katherine Kerr
64. Richard Matheson
63. Dan Simmons
62. Elizabeth Haydon
60. Richard Morgan
58. Jennifer Fallon
57. Mercedes Lackey
56. C.J. Cherryh
54. Jasper Fforde
53. Octavia Butler
50. Sherri S. Tepper
43. Jim Butcher
42. Tad Williams
40. Trudi Canavan
31. Lois McMaster Bujold
28. Steven Erikson
26. Guy Gavriel Kay
5. George R.R. Martin
No, I've never even heard of eight of the 'top 50', even one of the 'top ten'.
Name rings a bell, but never encountered
97. Charles Stross
96. Terry Goodkind
95. Brian W. Aldiss
89. Jonathan Carroll
84. Kim Stanley Robinson
77. Samuel R. Delaney
75. Julian May
73. Robert Silverberg
70. Larry Niven
67. Jack Vance
65. Marion Zimmer Bradley
59. Stephen Baxter
55. Harlan Ellison
41. Kurt Vonnegut
36. Orson Scott Card
34. Gene Wolfe
33. China Mieville
30. Roger Zelazny
24. Diana Wynne Jones
22. Philip Pullman
21. Robin Hobb
17. Robert Jordan
15. Robert Heinlein
12. David Gemmell
6. Isaac Asimov
Likewise, I've never knowingly read anything by 24% of the 'top 50'.
Read once; don't really remember
74. Edgar Rice Burroughs
66. Harry Harrison
52. J.G. Ballard
51. Robert E. Howard
19. Ray Bradbury
Reasons I dislike fantasy fiction - utter, infuriating dross
61. Terry Brooks
38. David Eddings
35. Stephen Donaldson
32. Raymond E. Feist
Which leaves 33 for the next entry.
16 May, 2008
Free Photoshop book
A colleague informs me that 'The Photoshop Anthology: 101 Web Design Tips, Tricks and Technology', £27.99 at Amazon, is currently being made available as a free .pdf download. The offer lasts until 04:00, 13 June (just under 28 days from the time of writing).
The text of the announcement stongly implies it's open to everyone, not only those 'in the industry', so go for it. You'll need to provide an e-mail address in return for the download link, but GuerillaMail is your friend.
1 May, 2008
Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, and I agree with much of what he says in his blog, but this time he's speaking for me:
"Mike Moorcock changed the inside of my head. I read 'Stormbringer' when I was nine, and that was pretty much that. My pocket money went on Moorcock books – which were gloriously being issued and reissued back then – and I read them and took what I could from them. It's not long until you have a multiverse in your twelve-year-old mind, and you learn that every hero is the Eternal Champion, and suddenly you're puzzling over Jerry Cornelius stories, with your head going places it hasn't gone before.
When people ask me about my influences, I tend to forget Mike, much in the way that people listing the things that were important to them growing up, fail to list the earth, the air, and sunlight. He taught me that high culture and low culture were simply points of view, and that what mattered was the writing. His influence as an editor still reverberates today. We're lucky to have him."
Exactly. Moorcock's influence on me was so fundamental I'm barely aware of it, but without him I wouldn't have the breadth of interests I do now, and certainly wouldn't have any patience with the 'fantasy' genre (bugger Tolkien; Moorcock's the real thing). I doubt I'd have discovered Neil G, for example.
I've said that I don't 'comfort read' (reread particular books frequently, as 'old friends'), but that's not strictly true. I'm not sure how many times I've returned to 'The Brothel in Rosenstrasse' over the past two decades. Okay; I doubt it's more than five, but that's probably more often than I've reread any other book.
I think I'll make it six this evening.
14 April, 2008
Free Iain Banks audiobook
Some might be interested to know that Banks' 1984 debut novel, 'The Wasp Factory' is currently available, for free download, as a 6-hour unabridged audio book.
'The Wasp Factory' isn't my favourite book from a novelist who has been amongst my favourite authors for over 15 years – I can't decide whether it depicts a profoundly disturbed personality well or merely tries too hard to shock. I could offer much the same criticism of other Banks novels, some of which have been pretentiously over-literate or have poorly integrated hyperviolent scenes into their plots – it's been a long time since I regarded Banks as my absolute favourite author.
I suppose I'm saying I would recommend trying 'The Wasp Factory', but I'd be reluctant to suggest it as the starting point for someone new to Banks' writing; 'The Crow Road' was my first (read on the train to St. Andrews for a PhD interview in 1992) and is still my favourite. Avoid 'A Song Of Stone'.
Another cause for hesitation is that the Independent is offering the free audiobook via Audible (one needs to register, but fake IDs work), only in the proprietory '.aa' format. I'm not prepared to install new download managers/players on my PC, nor plugin applications for iTunes, so I'll give the audio book a miss, myself.
Those who do want to download the five files have until Friday 18 April to do so.
29 February, 2008
To celebrate the seventh birthday of Neil Gaiman's blog on 9 February, Harper Collins decided to offer the complete text of one of his books, online, for free.
Visitors were given the opportunity to choose which one book would be made available, and after 26,551 votes, the unexpected (by Mr. G & the publishers) winner was 'American Gods', with 28% of the vote. It's now online.
Note that this isn't a free download – Harper Collins aren't insane – it's an opportunity to read the entire book online, via their website's 'browse inside' facility, and (initially) it's only available for a month. Bookmark it and get reading now or, even better, buy your own copy.
10 October, 2007
Calephetos reports that the following are currently the 106 books most often marked as 'unread' by LibraryThing users.
Meme rules: indicate those you've read in bold, those you started but couldn't finish in italics, and underline those on your to-read list. Add an asterisk (*) to those you've read more than once, or strikethrough those you couldn't stand.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell*
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose
Pride and Prejudice
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel
Angels & Demons
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Sound and the Fury
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir
The God of Small Things
A People's History of the United States: 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values
The Three Musketeers
I've read 34 (10 more than once), failed to read four and plan to read four. Of those, I disliked three, coincidentally all by Jane Austen. I think I've read four more, but have no recollection of their content, so they plainly don't count.
It's strange that Volumes 1 and 2 of Neal Stephenson's 'The Baroque Cycle' are on the list, but not Volume 3 – did people read the end but not the beginning and middle, or didn't they bother with the third after failing to read the earlier two? Either way, I think they were mistaken: it has a very slow start and demands concentration, but by the end it's wonderful.
5 May, 2007
So bad, I bought it twice
Last year, I quite enjoyed 'Century Rain', by Alastair Reynolds, so I bought another of his books recently, 'Revelation Space'. Five pages in, I stopped and checked my 'for eBay' pile. Yes, I already have that one. Bugger.
Okay; the title is unfair hyperbole, and it's not a 'bad' book, merely not one I'd choose to re-read. As I've said, pretty much the only variety of sci-fi I like is cyberpunk set in a credible near-future. High-fantasy, epic, space opera simply annoys me.
If there's a point to this entry, it's to alert those who have read 'Century Rain' that 'Revelation Space' is very different; liking one is no indication of liking the other, and vice versa.
In a way, I'm glad 'Revelation Space' was unmemorable, as I might have missed the fairly good 'Century Rain'.
13 February, 2007
Bugger. I've just added the paperback of Ken McLeod's 'The Execution Channel' to my Amazon wishlist, then noticed that the publication date is 1 February, 2008.
I can wait....
2 February, 2007
His luxuriant beard
Once upon a time, Gideon Defoe, accused of being a distant relative of Daniel Defoe (author of this classic of literature; oh, and this one) wrote a splendidly silly book 'to impress a girl'. It impressed a publisher, too (maybe the 'girl' was a publisher...), and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists was a low-key hit in 2004. I loved my copy so much, I gave it away. Oops.
Somehow, I thought no more of it, so I was mildly though unjustifiably surprised to discover that the sequel, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling had been popular in 2005, as was The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists last year, and Amazon are already taking pre-orders for the fourth, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon over a year ahead of its release date.
I think I have some catching-up to do. Care to join me?
24 January, 2007
Okay, okay; I'm a believer
I'm only 66 pages into 'The God Delusion', by Richard Dawkins, so it's somewhat too early to present a review, but frankly I see limited point in proceeding much further.
- I'm already 100% atheist, so Dawkins doesn't have to convince me of anything, and I don't seek the affirmation of other atheists.
- I don't regard religions with hostility (well, maybe a little for christianity, as that's the one which lied to me personally), so derive no enjoyment from Dawkin's systematic debunking.
- I intensely dislike evangelism, including atheist evangelism (which, incidentally, I'd never encountered before – atheism tends to be an individual choice, and incompatible with the concept of 'recruitment'). I'd never dream of engaging in it myself, so I don't need the ammunition provided by Dawkins, compelling as it is.
I suspect there are two main audiences for this book.
The first group comprises certain existing atheists gleefully eager to see religions attacked, as some sort of pathetic blood sport, or seeking arguments to throw at the religious (hopefully
only in self-defence against evangelists or otherwise when provoked). As I've said, I feel little affinity with them.
The second group comprises religious people questioning their faith. It's a great pity that Dawkins' tone, at least in the opening chapters, is so confrontational; it seems to be directed more at his frothing hardline critics than the more open-minded readers who might actually be reached by his message.
I'm not really sure what Dawkins has to say to a third group: those atheists who, like me, are already entirely happy and secure in our beliefs. Perhaps I should read the remaining 350 pages after all, and find out.
6 January, 2007
It's not something I've overtly considered, but, avoiding false modesty, I've always had a subliminal sense of being reasonably well-read. However, I'm beginning to question whether that necessarily means widely-read.
My mother gave me a meta-book for my birthday: '1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die'. I think it was intended as reinforcement, and she expected me to flick though and (metaphorically) tick off the dozens I'd read. Not the case – I've read a tiny minority of those I'm 'supposed' to have experienced.
Similarly, Tim published another meme questionnaire a few weeks ago which involved identifying those sci-fi/fantasy novels one has read from a 'top 50' list. It wasn't really worth my completing it in detail, as I've only read twelve. That may be a special case, as I don't really like the 'fantasy' genre and only the hard-tech, near-real-world type of sci-fi which features realistic people interacting with a realistic environment in a credible way – as I've said, interstellar travel and aliens aren't my thing.
Don't misunderstand; I do read a lot of books, but not so wide a range as might be expected. Once I've found an author I like, I tend to read everything he/she has written, rather than reading one book by each of numerous authors. Seven of my favourite authors probably account for over 100 novels of my personal bibliography. One could summarise by saying I'm an intensive reader rather than extensive, though less charitably, that could be rephrased as saying I'm conservative in my tastes and a little unadventurous.
That wouldn't be entirely fair, but I can't deny a certain reluctance to invest time in the totally unknown or try something simply because the masses or intelligentsia rate it. I've been 'burned' a few times, having read books I really haven't enjoyed, and somehow resented the lost time. I don't only mean trashy mass-market or genre stuff; the attraction of certain 'acknowledged classics' has eluded me, too.
For example, I've always found the prose styles of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen insufferable (sorry, A.), irrespective of their characterisation and plotting. I don't disrespect their work, of course – that'd be perverse – I simply don't derive pleasure from it. It's a fine balance, but sometimes the authorial voice interposes a little too much and dilutes the conveyance of a book's ideas. It's the classic issue of 'show, don't tell'; I want to be presented with a situation and either interpret it myself or empathise with the characters. I suspect my ideal book would be rather stark...
As I've also mentioned before, I favour online retailers over high street bookshops (chains more than independents, but the general point holds), so I'm disinclined to browse and buy on the strength of a cover image or back-cover text (actually, I very rarely read the latter until after I've read the book, as I don't want a summary to define preconceptions). Hence, I suppose I have limited exposure to new material, requiring reviews, recommendations, or references in articles by/about authors I already recognise. It's a problem.
So; do I plan to do anything about it? No. For the past couple of years I've been making a deliberate effort to catch up on acknowledged 'must-see' films (as defined by the IMDb top 250), but at least at the time of writing, I don't feel an inclination to do the same with books. It may be a matter of time investment, but more fundamentally, I enjoy reading too much, and I couldn't imagine artificially treating it as a chore.
23 December, 2006
Don't read this
Via Neil Gaiman: the Library Thing UnSuggester.
A standard feature of web stores is the little suggestion applet which informs the visitor that 'if you like x, you might like to try y' or 'other customers who bought x also bought y'. The UnSuggester is the reverse, searching the LibraryThing database (not that of Amazon or any other retailer) of 8 million books to establish those titles one is not likely to enjoy, based on books one already owns.
For example, if I like 'Snow Crash', by Neal Stephenson, it seems I'm unlikely to rush out and buy, nor to already own, any of 73 items of hardcore christian propaganda. Extremely true, though there's nothing anti-christian about 'Snow Crash'.
It didn't immediately occur to me, but this can be used the other way round: insert the details of a book one doesn't like, and receive a suggestion for a potentially more satisfying alternative.
4 December, 2006
As he has a tendency to do, Neil Gaiman has inadvertently stated one of the prime characteristics of my favourite authors, film directors and musicians:
My approach is always the same. You're the storyteller, somebody else is somebody you're telling stories to, and it's your job to take them by the hand, look them in the eye, and say everything's okay, we're going to walk into dark places, and you can trust me. And then you take their hand, and you walk step by step out of the light, into a dark place. And then you let go of their hand and you walk away.
10 October, 2006
Heh. I've just realised one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, qualifies as 'progressive': his material encompasses a huge variety of genres and even media, and some 'works' are immensely long (2000+ pages, in the case of 'The Sandman').
1 July, 2006
I spent the two hours between 16:00 & 18:00 in the garden, reading*.
When I say 'the garden', I mean Williamson Park, as that's how I treat it. I can almost always find a quiet corner and reasonable privacy (not quite enough for nude sunbathing, but the world isn't ready for that gross horror and net increase in global albedo anyway).
Today, though, I had the place almost entirely to myself. I could sit on the edge of the old bandstand with only a couple of dog-walkers in the distance. I wonder why....
[In a few months that'll be too cryptic, so I'll answer my rhetorical question: today was the semi-final (or something) of the football World Cup, in which England played... some other national (not that 'England' is a true 'nation') team.]
As if I had the slightest interest: have the English been kicked out of the World Cup yet?
*: 'Century Rain', by Alistair Reynolds. On the strength of books (by other authors) I've ordered from Amazon, the matching algorithms keep recommending Reynolds', so I'm trying one.
Two hours only covered the first 167 pages, so it's a little early to make conclusions, but it seems okay, if not as 'good' as the novels which triggered the recommendation. We'll see.
[Update 18:55: Not penalties again! As I said, football doesn't interest me, but I wouldn't have wished that déjà vu ending on anyone.]
19 June, 2006
Something that came up at Neil Gaiman's blog over a week ago (I've barely glanced at a blog for 11 days – it's been liberating):
A visitor observed/asked:
The issue is related to the amount of references – to literature, music, mythology and so on – that you insert in your comics and novels. For me it is very intriguing and enjoyable to discover the origin of all these references: sometimes it is easy sometimes not. The 'critics' say that it is difficult understand what you really want to say.
In fact, you don't provide any explanation to these references, neither in footnotes nor in appendices or in any other form. It seems that you don't care whether the readers can or cannot grasp them.
Why this choice?
I think that the references to other things in stories are a bonus – they can add texture and resonance and sometimes humour and magic. But I also tend to believe that stories should work as stories for someone coming to them perfectly cold knowing nothing – (well, maybe not completely nothing).
And for that matter, if people come back to the stories later, knowing more than they did the first time, sometimes they'll find that the stories have changed and grown while they were away.
Though I have turned to novels for distraction during bad episodes in my life, ordinarily I'm not a 'comfort reader', who frequently re-reads a small number of favourites*. I tend to read most books only once, and particularly good ones a second time after a couple of years. True favourites might be read again every five years or so thereafter; I don't think I've read any book more than 5-6 times.
That said, I strongly identify with the idea that books can improve with age and experience – my age, I mean. A term or reference might seem so meaningless as to even evade my awareness first time, but having learned a new word or concept in the intervening period, the same reference could change the emphasis and entertainment value of a book when re-reading.
*: I've, er, read that this is a fundamental distinction in the way male and female readers approach books.
2 June, 2006
Fixing the books
In case anyone was unaware: product placement in a bookshop is rarely on merit, other than the merit of the publisher's bank balance, and 'Top Ten', 'Book of the Week' and 'Buyer's Choice' ratings are invariably meaningless, merely reflcting what the publisher was willing to pay for that status. I suppose it's different in independent bookshops, but if you buy from high street chains, airport concessions and supermarkets, don't be fooled by spurious ratings.
According to The Times (okay, not the most reliable or unbiased of sources), 'seventy per cent of promotional budgets go on furtive payments to bookshops'. £50,000 renders a book W.H.Smith’s 'book of the week', whilst Waterstone’s charges £10,000 for the same status. That a book is indicated to be a 'fiction buyer’s favourite' at Borders is no indication that a buyer has even seen the front cover.
It could be argued that this practice will only exist so long as customers and reviewers remain fooled by artificial hype, so spread the word and burst the bubble. Even better, tell a friend about a genuinely good book.
Internet-based music retailing seems so much further ahead on this issue. I'm certainly aware that professional marketing is just as insidious in that field, and several 'word of mouth' hits are anything but (c.f. Sandi Thom), but it does seem bands can reach audiences without massive promotional budgets or marketing agencies in a way unknown novelists simply can't. I'm afraid I can't think of a solution.
[Via Neil Gaiman.]
22 May, 2006
As I've said before, I don't believe in buying locally merely for the sake of supporting local retailers. If corner shops and independent bookshops are out-competed by supermarkets and national chains, too bad; they represent obsolete market sectors which should be allowed to die if they're unwilling or unable to offer something unique.
And that's the key point. Good independent bookshops aren't inherently obsolete, and can provide added value that chains can't, including specialist expertise, individual service and atmosphere.
Some attempt to replicate the national chains' homogenous retail units and promotional tactics without the backing of national distribution networks, influence with publishers and economies of scale. Understandably, they struggle, relying on people 'doing the right thing' by artificially supporting their local bookshops. So far as I'm concerned, merely being small and local is insufficient justification for existence, and relying on customers' charity is an awful business model. Such shops fail.
However, as Stephen Moss, writing in the Guardian, found, bookshops which focus on their strengths and offer a unique environment are surviving, even thriving.
It can't be easy, and wouldn't work for everyone. Specialist is rarely ubiquitous, and it's logical to presume that the days of there being an independent bookshop on every high street are gone. In researching his article, Moss couldn't find a single independent bookshop in central Manchester, and I can't think of one in Lancaster (not counting the specialist sci-fi one, and the less said about that, the better). I don't have a problem with that.
16 April, 2006
Review: 'The Difference Engine' (William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, 1990)
Having completed this a few minutes ago, for the third time since 1992, I still don't 'get' it.
'The Difference Engine' is credited as being the defining, though not the first, mainstream 'steampunk' sci-fi novel, introducing information technology to a historical setting. As such, it is frequently cited as an 'important' book, and not only because the authors are key figures in the cyberpunk genre. However, calling it 'important' isn't quite the same as saying it's a particularly 'good' book, or worth actually reading.
The central premise is that in the novel's alternative history, Charles Babbage succeeded in refining and manufacturing his Analytical Engine (not his Difference Engine, but the latter makes a more apt title), revolutionising the British Empire though the application of mass-produced computing.
In theory, the book's three interlinked stories explore this alternative Victorian London, but though I'm sure it was meticulously researched and thought-through, it fails to capture the feel of the age, coming across as too dry and ultimately superficial. One would hope and expect to be immersed in the fictional culture, but that never happens, and one is kept at a distance.
Having glanced though customer reviews at Amazon, it seems that though few rated the narrative, several thought the book to be an excellent description of Victorian Britain. I don't remotely agree. I can only presume those reviewers are non-Brits who have read few genuine Victorian novels and have limited knowledge of the era. Perhaps the novel provides an adequate semblance for (stereo)typical sci-fi readers, but the wider-read will be less impressed.
The characters are poorly-developed and their actions lack internal consistency; some seem to have been included merely to represent 'types' the authors wished to illustrate. Some of the dialogue is awful. Just as Dick Van Dyke spectacularly failed to capture working-class Cockney in 'Mary Poppins', the novel's characters emit bizarre parodies of Victorian English.
The single element linking the three stories is ultimately tangential and, at the risk of revealing a plot spoiler, is less than thrilling when it's finally explained. If that one factor is ignored (and I found that too easy), one is left with three standalone stories set in a theoretically interesting (but, as I said, under-realised) world. That needn't be a problem, but it means each individual 'novella' needs to be particularly compelling, to draw-in a reader afresh. I don't think that's achieved.
Only for Gibson & Sterling fans, I think, and perhaps for those tempted to make a better attempt at the concept.
26 February, 2006
It's in here somewhere...
These carbon-based data storage/display devices are great for most purposes, but books could do with a decent search utility. Maybe in version 2.
I've been reading 'The Science of Discworld' (Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, 1999) this week, which alternates chapters of a Discworld story with chapters on corresponding topics of popular science. Following the 'narrative' from the Big Bang to the evolution of the Earth and life upon it, it's a very readable introduction to key scientific concepts. It has no patience with creationism, but isn't strident about that; arguments are clearly made explaining that there's no reason to think external intervention was ever necessary – not saying that intervention was impossible, but that the outcome can be fully explained without it. There are no gaps where the religious could cry "Aha! That has to have been consciously designed!"
Conversely, comparison of 'Roundworld' (us), which functions according to scientific 'rules', with Discworld, which runs on narrative imperative, highlights humanity's need for stories.
Somewhere in the book there's a good analogy which makes the idea of a soul, able to transcend physical death, faintly ridiculous, but without the ability to seach for the word 'eggbeater' I don't have much chance of finding it again.
Hang on; I have a slightly photographic memory, and remember the passage's relative location: top of a left-hand page, itself the final page of a 'science' chapter... found it!
It is curious that the strongest believers in the soul tend to be people who denigrate material things; yet they then turn their philosophy on its head by insisting that when an evident process – life – comes to an end, there has to be a thing that continues. No. When a process stops, it's no longer 'there'. When you stop beating an egg, there isn't some pseudo-material essence of eggbeater that passes on to something else. You just aren't turning the handle any more.
9 February, 2006
Review: 'The Baroque Cycle' (Neal Stephenson, 2003-4)
Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite authors, so I bought the first volume of his Baroque Cycle, 'Quicksilver' within a fortnight of its publication in paperback (I rarely buy hardback novels). Unfortunately, it didn't grab me to the same extent as his earlier, cyberpunk, novels, and the dense references to a historical period of which I knew little were somewhat off-putting. In short, I thought it hard work, even boring.
On the strength of Stephenson's earlier books, I bought the second volume, 'The Confusion' a little after that was released in paperback, but I wasn't quite so eager to start that, and it languished in my 'to read' pile for eight months. I didn't begin it until visiting my mother in December, a period of enforced separation from work & my computer and an opportunity to address something I (then) thought 'heavy'.
That made all the difference. I think I must have read 'Quicksilver' a few pages at a time in the minutes between going to bed (tired) and putting out the light; it didn't really receive my full attention, at a time of night when my mind wasn't exactly receptive, and I wasn't reading enough per 'sitting' to be drawn into the 17th Century world. 'The Confusion' did receive my full attention, whilst I was fully awake, and I was able to devote whole hours to it.
And I loved it. Stephenson's command of language and wordplay was just right, incorporating elements of 18th Century (yes, the century had turned) English in a way accessible to 21st Century readers, yet demonstrating the 18th Century meanings of certain words – I've gained a richer understanding of my own language. The characters seemed to come alive much more than in 'Quicksilver', and I began to care about them, whether heroes, anti-heroes or villains.
Though sold in three volumes, one could divide the 2616-page Baroque Cycle into about a dozen episodes, each containing overlapping threads. Some of these episodes, particularly those focusing on courtly European politics, were rather dry, but others were thrilling action yarns, incorporating street battles in world capitals, acts of maritime piracy and capture of mediaeval fortresses. Some of the set-pieces were as delicious as the opening pages of Stephenson's 'Snow Crash', though a little more subtle than that novel's ninja pizza delivery man.
As soon as I returned to Lancaster, I ordered the final volume, 'The System Of The World'. I finished it this 'morning' (at 03:20...), but I wish I hadn't. More, please!
Most of the lead characters in the Cycle were fictional. Some were ancestors of characters in Stephenson's previous novel 'Cryptonomicon', which was set in the 1940s and the present day. However, more so than in 'Cryptonomicon', several secondary characters were genuine historical figures, and it was fascinating to view Sir Isaac Newton, Louis XIV of France and Gottfried von Liebniz, amongst others, as people, in the context of their contemporary environments.
So far as I can tell (I'm no expert on the period), the books were well-researched. A lot of the events were fictional, but cleverly fit between factual ones. Some placed historical characters hundreds of miles from their recorded locations on certain dates, but in a way that made it clear they were travelling incognito, or that their activities credibly wouldn't have entered the historical record. In some cases, the known actions of genuine people in documented situations were used, but the wider context of the narrative absorbed them well, by introducing rather different interpretations of historical fact.
It was also fascinating to follow social change not in terms of the usual historical indices (monarchs and battles), but by following the motivators: the flows of money and information, including one of Stephenson's recurring themes, cryptography.
I definitely recommend reading the three volumes in reasonably rapid succession, as the events of one had consequences in the next, and it could be difficult to remember the past actions of certain characters, or even recognise a couple of characters at all, if they'd been out of the narrative for a while. The framing narrative of 'Quicksilver', in which Daniel Waterhouse travels from Boston, Mass., back to England, was continued in 'The System Of The World' i.e. all 815 pages of 'The Confusion' were interposed before the original timeline was continued.
Despite a less than promising start: highly recommended.
18 December, 2005
Review: 'Stamping Butterflies' (Jon Courtenay Grimwood, 2004)
I picked up a copy of 'Lucifer's Dragon' from the sci-fi display table in Waterstone's Lancaster in 1998, drawn by the intriguing description on the front cover (of the NEL edition): 'The cybershock sensation'. It's one of the few occasions when I've bought a book without prior knowledge of it, solely on the strength of the cover. I did enjoy it, mainly for the pacing and richness of the cyberpunk concepts, but the number and aggression of the sex scenes felt a little juvenile.
I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and I've since read all of his books except 'neoAddix', which has been out of print for as long as I've been aware of JCG. That's a pity, as 'reMix' and 'redRobe' seem to be the second and third parts of a trilogy. Though the common elements in those I have read are peripheral, and each book adequately stands alone, it'd be good to have a clearer idea of the context and character evolution.
'Pashazade', 'Effendi' and 'Felaheen' form another trilogy, set in the North African city of El Iskandryia; not the real Egyptian city of that name (Alexandria, in English), but a fictionalised version. The Arabesk novels are nominally sci-fi, but that's secondary to the characters themselves, expressed with a markedly more mature style than earlier books. That said, I didn't find them quite as accessible as those earlier books. I suspect some readers would enjoy the earlier, overtly cyberpunk novels but not the El Isk ones, or vice versa.
The next, 'Stamping Butterflies', is somewhere between the two. It's neither a case of a fairly minimalist plot carrying the leisurely development of characters, nor of a fast-paced, wide-ranging plot somewhat overshadowing the characters (without wishing to overstate that distinction in the earlier books, either); characterisation and sense of place are major strengths, but less critical to one's enjoyment than before.
There are three distinct storylines, a chapter of the first followed by a chapter on each of the others before continuing the first, progressing that way until the threads resolve (ooh, nasty mixed metaphor) into one. It's a common style, particularly in cyberpunk, but this is one of the most subtle treatments of that interlacing process I've read: the threads don't run in parallel then merge, they almost bleed into one another and before the reader even notices, they've already combined.
The title is a hint to one overall theme: that tiny actions can have vast consequences in the future. That truism could be considered simplistic, but JCG takes it much further, even reversing it. It's all very quantum.... Also note that this isn't the beating of a butterfly's wings creating storms elsewhere, it's stamping butterflies – violence has consequences too.
I won't provide a synopsis, as I'd recommend you find that out for yourself by reading the book, but two brief points:
One of the interlinked stories has a North African setting, like the Arabesk series, but it's set in 1970s 'real world' Marrakech, and the associated socio-political environment, not the fictionalised El Isk, and there's no crossover to the earlier books.
Another thread could be considered a commentary (though not overtly a judgement) on Guantánamo Bay, Abu-Ghraib and the US practice of imprisoning suspects abroad for interrogation illegal on its own territory. Whilst I thought the confusion of torture, legal & psychiatric visits and bureaucracy exhibited seemed credible, the scrabble for legitimacy seemed less likely (but what do I know of the true situation?).
I found the ending a little anticlimactic. To be trite: the journey is better than the destination, and the resolution of the overarching plot isn't so satisfying as the reader might have been anticipating.
I finished reading the book and drafted most of this entry weeks ago, on 20 October, but was rudely interrupted by a phone call from Warszawa ;) and somehow haven't got back to it until now. Coincidentally, on that same day, I discovered that JCG's new novel, '9Tail Fox', which I hadn't even known was forthcoming, was published. The cover resembles that of 'Stamping Butterflies', but I'm pretty sure that's merely consistent graphic design, rather than an indication that it's the second of yet another trilogy. 'Stamping Butterflies' didn't seem to leave an opportunity for continuation, and felt 'right' as a self-contained, complete story.
11 December, 2005
Review: 'A Hat Full Of Sky' (Terry Pratchett, 2004)
Best Discworld novel yet? Difficult to say; I only finished 'A Hat Full Of Sky' about 15 minutes ago, so my judgement might be impaired. It's certainly one of the funniest, with at least five 'laughing-too-hard-to-breathe' moments.
It's marketed as a children's book, but that does seem to be mere marketing, and there's nothing simplistic or patronisingly childish about the writing. Whilst reading, I wasn't aware of it being aimed at children. I repeatedly forgot Tiffany is supposed to be eleven years old, which might have been a problem but not exactly a criticism, as it may reflect my own preconceptions more than Pratchett's ability to write a young lead character. Perhaps some of the philosophical subtexts were less 'sub-' than usual, but that's fine, and his usual 'stereotypes' trick* worked well.
'A Hat Full Of Sky' certainly is a Discworld novel, even if it isn't categorised as part of the main sequence. Despite Lancre not being mentioned, it's as much a 'Witches' novel as most, and the one character who appears in every Discworld book is in this one too.
*: Pratchett has a trick of encompassing several stereotypes, instantly imbuing a sense of familiarity: the reader immediately knows more about the characters than needs to be stated outright, and the reader therefore defines the characters in his/her own terms, according to his/her own perceptions. However, that's only half the trick – Pratchett goes on to challenge and subvert those stereotypes, saying something new about them.
30 November, 2005
SF book meme
Via Tim, a simple premise: take the Guardian's list of the top 20 'geek' novels written in English since 1932, and indicate which you've read.
1. The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Yes, though I've always thought it extremely overrated, and I thought Adams ran out of worthwhile material after the first sequel. More recently, I've come to associate it with stereotypically smug middle class, middle English sensibilities.
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
Yes, and I found it suitably powerful.
3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
I think I was a bit too young to appreciate this when I read it in my mid-teens. Must try it again.
4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip Dick
I read this quite recently (within the last five years, anyway), and was underimpressed, considering it turned into 'Blade Runner'.
5. Neuromancer – William Gibson
Yes. As Tim said, it features one of the best opening lines of any book (one of only 2-3 I've memorised), and is a really good novel. I've always found the Villa Straylight section less than compelling, though. Dunno why.
6. Dune – Frank Herbert
Yes. Excellent. For creating an entire world and coherent society, I rate Herbert at least as highly as Tolkien.
Has anyone else noticed that the first, third and fifth Dune novels are better (whatever that means) than the second, fourth and sixth?
7. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
No. I did see the recent film, which was okay, considering I didn't expect much. I could appreciate a few thought-provoking concepts beneath the special effects, and if they were true to the book, it looks worth reading.
8. Foundation – Isaac Asimov
No. Never heard of it.
9. The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
I've read all the Discworld books (and several of Pratchett's others), up to 'Going Postal', usually within a month of each paperback having been released i.e. I've liked them since the mid-Eighties, but not enough to rush out and buy in hardback.
Apart from 'Monstrous Regiment', 'The Colour Of Magic' and 'The Light Fantastic' are my least favourites. The coherence and characterisation of the setting and characters didn't seem to become properly established until later books (there's more about that here), so the first two seem a bit inconsistent and lightweight by comparison.
10. Microserfs – Douglas Coupland
Yes, and I reviewed it almost two years ago.
11. Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Yes! One of my favourite books, not only because of the first couple of pages (see the fourth paragraph here).
12. Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
No, but I intend to.
13. Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
A little slow, but worth it. I'm afraid 'Quicksilver' failed to hold my attention to the same (limited) extent, and 'The Confusion' has been in my 'to read' pile since I bought it several months ago.
14. Consider Phlebas – Iain M Banks
Yes. Not my favourite Banks SF novel (that'd be 'Excession'), but still good.
15. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
I was going to say 'no', but the synopsis at Amazon seems familiar. I suspect I did read it in my teens, and have simply forgotten.
16. The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick
No. I don't recognise that title.
17. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Yes. Excellent, and reviewed here.
18. The Diamond Age – Neal Stephenson
Yes. Another of my favourite books. I'd love to see Stephenson continue this story (the narrative is certainly wide open for that), but I suspect his interests have moved on from the overtly cyberpunk genre.
19. The Illuminatus! Trilogy – Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
Yes. It contains a couple of interesting ideas, but they were conveyed better in the 'Principia Discordia', and I really didn't rate the writing style.
20. Trouble with Lichen - John Wyndham
Never heard of it!
30 October, 2005
Have you read...?
The BBC reports that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, A Very Long Engagement) is to direct a film version of the Booker Prize-winning novel 'Life Of Pi'. I've enjoyed his films and Yann Martel's book, so this sounds interesting.
Coincidentally, the novel was cited in discussion at the Guardian, following the publication of a survey which claims that 'one in three has bought a book just to look intelligent'.
If the figures are to be believed, only one in 20 people have actually got through Yann Martel's bestselling The Life of Pi, while fewer than one in 25 of us, though we queued up to buy it in our millions, have bothered to cut through the magic-realist thickets of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
Several comments from readers reinforce the assertion that 'Life Of Pi'
(at least get the title right, Mr. Dickson) is practically unreadable.
I'm astonished. I certainly wouldn't claim to be a great intellect, but didn't find 'Life of Pi' remotely 'difficult', and enjoyed it. Similarly, 'Midnight's Children' is amongst my all-time favourite books, possibly because it's not merely frothy, throwaway light entertainment.
If the most a book provides is a reason to move one's eyes whilst sunbathing, or a means of merely killing time, why bother? Time is immensely valuable to me; I try to invest rather than just spend it. For me, entertainment isn't 'down time', nor a reason to disengage my brain.
I hope it's obvious that I don't go to the opposite extreme and actively seek 'challenging' books – life's too short for that, too.
Undeniably, one does take a few minutes to slip into a mindset receptive to Rushdie's written style. I remember finishing a very readable sci-fi novel once, then starting 'The Moor's Last Sigh' at the same pace – it was like sprinting into a stone wall. Rushdie's prose style and almost playful use of language can't be hurried, and I don't understand why anyone would wish to. Yet, even having said that, I wouldn't describe 'Midnight's Children' as linguistically challenging or inaccessible. To a patient reader, it flows wonderfully. For ****'s sake, it's fun!
I can't avoid the suspicion that the Guardian discussion is dominated by reverse snobbery, the participants attempting to distance themselves from the initial 'artificially high-brow' pretension by affecting disdain for anything perceived as elitist. To avoid association with one herd, they embrace another. The underlying intention is the same: asserting that "I'm special, me" whilst taking elaborate care to avoid alienating ones' peer group – the very definition of bourgeois.
I can honestly say I've never bought a book in order to display it on a bookshelf or to say anything about myself, not least because I don't give a **** about the opinions of (many) others, and certainly no-one so shallow as to consider books as mere status-symbols. That's certainly not to say I've completed every book I've ever bought – I've been on p.258 of 'Crime And Punishment' for 3-4 years –, but I bought it because I genuinely want(ed) to read it.
One thing the Guardian discussion doesn't mention is the converse. I wonder how many people who'd buy the latest award-winning novel with minimal expectation of even opening it would recoil from the very idea of reading anything perceived as populist, such as a Terry Pratchett book. Admittedly, I've gone-off the early Discworld novels, and 'Monstrous Regiments' was disappointing, but the snobs are missing out on quality literature in books such as 'The Fifth Elephant', merely because of empty reputation.
25 October, 2005
Marc Abrahams, organiser of the Ig Nobel Prizes, offers a review of Raymond W. Dull's thrilling masterwork, 'Mathematics for Engineers'.
13 October, 2005
Amazon's not so bad
Alan Bennett, the author/playwright whose home village in Yorkshire happens to be within cycling distance of Lancaster (not that that's relevant) has urged people to boycott major book retailers such as Waterstones and Amazon "to keep their local independent bookshops alive."
Not a chance.
As I've said before, I'm totally opposed to the idea of artificially sustaining obsolete market sectors merely for the sake of sentimentality. If independent bookshops can't compete in the open market, or can't exploit some specialist niche, goodbye. To repeat myself: if the market doesn't support their existence, the obvious result shouldn't be postponed.
If he'd expressed it in terms of excessive commercialisation of the publishing industry, and an unwillingness of publishers to risk minority-interest books which mightn't sell well via mass-market outlets, I'd be rather more sympathetic. But he didn't.
8 June, 2005
Review: Utz (Bruce Chatwin, 1988)
I'm off to Prague next week, so thought I'd better read something relevant!
Overall, I was a little disappointed, as I remember enjoying Chatwin's 'On The Black Hill' a few years ago, particularly for his understated, yet clear, understanding of the characters. I thought 'Utz' to be rather slight by comparison, almost an outline for a larger novel rather than itself a complete, developed book. Likewise with the characters. Plot twists revealing unsuspected aspects of the characters fell flat, as one hadn't already become accustomed to their normal behaviour. Never mind the unexpected, the expected hadn't been established.
Another factor was somewhat beyond the author's control. 'Utz' was set in Communist-era Prague, and that regime was central to the plot, in particular the perception that it would outlive the protagonist, Kaspar Utz. Perhaps the story would have greater impact if the Iron Curtain was still in place, but subsequent events have made it more difficult for at least me to identify with the unending (and partly self-inflicted) claustrophobia of Utz's life.
I don't want to sound too negative; it's not a 'bad' book and the quality of the writing is well above average. It's just not as good as I'd hoped, and as 'billed'. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, apparently – I don't think I'd put it in that league. In fact, I have a suspicion that it might have achieved that status by happy circumstance.
It was published in 1988; by the end of 1989 the Velvet Revolution had ousted the Communist government. Presumably at the time the Booker judges were considering their choices, Czechoslovakia was major news, so they may have been particularly drawn to a book set there.
The fact that 'Utz' is only 120 pages long might also have endeared it to fatigued judges!
In short: it's okay, but not great. I'd recommend 'On The Black Hill', though.
20 February, 2005
Which authors by whom have you read more than ten books?
No, that makes no grammatical sense.
Which authors have you read more than ten books by?
No, that's wrong, too.
Name those authors of whose books you have read more than ten.
That's better. Not great, but better.
Here are mine, in alphabetical order. It's as arbitrary as any other technique.
Actually, no. That skews things far too much towards prolific authors - it's only asking about authors who have written more than ten books, whereas some of my favourite authors have only written one or two. Hence, with apologies to the founder of the meme, I'm revising it to five. I've also restricted it to those on my bookshelves at present - I haven't mentioned those I read as a child, nor those in storage and therefore I haven't seen for over a decade.
Iain Banks (both with and without the 'M.')
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Links are to my favourite book by each author.
That's dominated by sci-fi authors, but says more about the genre and my approach to it than reflecting my true reading habits. I've certainly read more 'non-genre' books than 'genre', but fewer than five by each author.
31 January, 2005
Supplementing the da Vinci code
I read 'The Da Vinci Code' yesterday. Yes, all 550+ pages - the, er, 'quality' of the prose and plot meant it was easy to read quickly.
Without revealing spoilers, key plot points rely on interpretation of details in Leonardo's (not "da Vinci's") 'fresco' (it's not a fresco), 'The Last Supper', so I did a Google search for an image of it this morning.
I discovered this, a point-by-point rebuttal of Brown's whole thesis (if indeed it is Brown's - there have been credible accusations of plagiarism).
Sorry, conspiracy fans, but many of the provable glaring errors rather undermine the central idea. It's okay as thought-provoking fiction, but the problem is Brown assertion - which certainly boosted sales - that historical information in the book is all factually accurate.
I'm not going to question his interpretations (I'll leave that to Bart Ehrman), but based on the provable aspects (e.g. in Leonardo's 'Madonna Of The Rocks', John is plainly on the left, Jesus on the right, not the reverse, as Brown claims; or whilst Brown claims the Louvre's glass pyramid deliberately contains 666 panes, anyone can go there and count 673), it's unrealistic to claim the book to be substantively factual, or even well-researched.
23 September, 2004
Round the Pole to Lancaster
It seems the manager of the University bookshop has suddenly turned proactive: he's secured Michael Palin for a book signing on 13 October. So far as I know, this is the shop's first signing session. This has to be a bit of a coup for the campus branch of Waterstones, since I'm not aware of any previous signings, either here or at the 'senior' branch in town. Well done!
These sessions could be the salvation of high-street bookshops. I rarely buy from such shops nowadays; in fact I found out about the signing whilst selecting a guidebook to New York City, but I've returned to the office to order it from Amazon. For one thing, it's £3.30 (30%) cheaper. For another I don't have to deal with shop staff.
The staff of the University shop seem okay, but as it's primarily an academic bookshop, the range of non-academic books is limited, so I rarely call in.
With one exception, the staff of the city centre Waterstones are useless. They seem to regard themselves as the cream of Lancaster's intelligentsia, too good for anything as mundane as dealing with customers. Their loss.
There is a branch of Ottakars, but since I tend to only use high street bookshops as a browsing resource, and Waterstones is convenient, I can't really comment on the Ottakars staff.
There's also a specialist sci-fi bookshop in Lancaster, but I won't promote it by quoting the name; I find the owner annoying, and avoid visiting.
3 September, 2004
Escape from reality
As Neil Gaiman noticed, the first paragraph of this review in the Village Voice is rather odd, suggesting that British authors are good at writing fantasy novels because the UK is horrible, whereas US authors write good sci-fi because the USA is wonderful. As my mother would say I'd say: "yeah, right".
The Mumpsimus makes another good point about the same paragraph, questioning the underlying assumption that fantasy (and presumably sci-fi) is, by definition, escapist:
... fantasy equals escape from 'the real world', as if reading fantasy is a wimpy alternative to using LSD.
Of course, some - many - maybe even most - novels marketed as 'fantasy' are, indeed, escapist, in that the writer's desire is merely to create something entertaining and the reader's desire is merely to be entertained, to pass some time.
But there can be, and these days more and more often there is, something more going on. As storytellers from the dawn of human history have known, fantasy is a powerful way to make an audience think about their own world and lives while at the same time being entertained.
Speaking for myself, that latter type is the one I go for (in sci-fi, anyway; the 'fantasy' genre just isn't to my taste). Whilst I enjoy 'cyberpunk' novels featuring realistic people interacting with a realistic environment in a credible way, interstellar travel and aliens aren't my thing. Yet the best of even that class of novel often approaches real-world issues by metaphor. For example, racism or xenophobia applies whether interracial or interspecies. There are many books (and in particular TV series) I mightn't enjoy, but I wouldn't dismiss them so casually (thoughtlessly?) as the Village Voice article suggests.
I may have digressed from Matthew's real point, so read his posting for yourself.
9 August, 2004
I'm pleased to say this issue seems to have been resolved: Katie Tarbox has publicly apologised to Katie Jones for the massive inconveniences caused by the former's book being entitled 'Katie.com', the domain name of the latter's entirely unconnected website. The book is to be re-released and retitled 'A Girl’s Life Online'.
5 August, 2004
Neil Gaiman has already mentioned this, but I suspect it's an issue which would benefit from as much publicity as can be mustered.
In May 2000, the autobiographical account of Katie Tarbox's seduction by an online paedophile was published in the USA under the title 'Katie.com'. A worthy subject, and it must have taken courage to write.
The problem is that Katie.com is a pre-existing domain name owned since 1996 by an entirely different Katie, a chat site proprietor in the UK. With the book's publication, the website received some 100,000 visitors per day and Ms. Jones was swamped by unwanted e-mail, often harrowing accounts of molestation and rape.
Katie.com used to house Jones' CV, pictures of her young son, and a link to her professional site. The increased attention, including "... the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people..." meant that content had to be removed for the safety of her business and family. Quoted by the Guardian in August 2000, Jones said:
"Now the domain name is always going to be associated with this book. It's not mine any more, it's theirs, and they didn't even ask me if they could have it."
also covered the story, and the fact that when Jones' lawyer, Jonathan Taylor, contacted the publishers (who had been the determining factor in the book's title):
In reply she got a strongly-worded letter from a leading freedom of speech lawyer retained by Penguin who said Ms Jones had no case.
The Guardian again:
Jones and Taylor both feel they're at the mercy of a large multinational publishing concern with unlimited resources. "If somebody wrote a book about dodgy booksellers, and called it 'Amazon.com', they wouldn't stand for it. They have huge resources and I don't have any," Jones said. "I have every sympathy with this girl; clearly something awful happened to her. But at the same time, that doesn't justify them using my domain name, whether it was her doing or the publishers."
This was bad enough in 2000, but the reason Neil G. mentioned it (also Boing Boing) was that more recently Katie J. has been contacted by an (allegedly) aggressive lawyer currently collaborating on a project with Katie T., effectively demanding that she surrender (sorry; 'donate') the domain name to them. Not only has the domain been hijacked by default (each time the book is mentioned in the media, unwelcome site traffic and e-mails peak again), there's now an attempt to formally take it from the rightful owner.
I can only sympathise with Katie Jones, and hope that negative publicity for the publisher and this lawyer might persuade them to act responsibly. After all, their cause is commendable; it's just their behaviour which is totally unreasonable.
See, yes, Katie.com for more details, an open letter to Katie Tarbox & Penguin, and updates.
25 July, 2004
The story of The Story Of O
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the powerful 'The Story Of O', The Observer offers (I could have said 'submits'. But wouldn't) memories of its author, Dominique Aury (writing as Pauline Reage).
It's difficult to explain my feelings about the book - it's simultaneously compelling and repellent, fascinating and not at all offensive, in my opinion.
Incidentally, I think it's safe to say the sequel is dispensible, unless only as a curiosity.
3 May, 2004
Review: 'The Human Front' (Ken Macleod, 2001)
An enjoyable novella, very much in Macleod's usual style combining socialist politics and everyday life in a very credible alternative post-1945 history, but the abrupt shift to the introduction of more cliched 'high sci-fi' elements (flying saucers, interplanetary flight, time travel and interdimensional parallel timelines) was a little disappointing. Those first three cliched aspects also appear in his 'Engines Of Light' trilogy (2,3), though are are better justified and mentioned only very briefly in the back story, so are successfully integrated.
The main initial disappointment was the length. Having realised this is a novella, no problem, but it's a bit naughty of Amazon to sell this as "Paperback 208 pages", which certainly implies a full-length novel, whereas the volume contains two independent novellas by entirely unrelated authors - the MacLeod section is really only 90 pages of the 208. The rest of the volume is 'A Writer's Life' by Eric Brown, a story which could have been conceived by H.P.Lovecraft, if he'd been writing about contemporary Yorkshire.
8 April, 2004
Review: 'Model Behaviour' (Jay McInerney, 1998)
I may be the wrong person to review this book. Returning from Wales on Tuesday, I faced a two hour train journey with nothing to read, so my mother lent me whatever she happened to have in the house. If I'd seen 'Model Behaviour' in a bookshop, I wouldn't have given it a second glance, but it's good to try something different occasionally.
I'm not criticising the quality of the writing; the prose read well without being either pretentious or simplistic, and the characterisations were okay. The problem was that the story describes an incestuous world that I neither occupy nor aspire to: the fashion industry (fashion design itself interests me, but not the people and lifestyle), style magazines, cliquey 'beautiful people' and indeed New York (sorry: Manhattan) itself. The locations and character motivations meant little to me; as good a satire as this may be, I have a limited understanding of what was being satirised.
I couldn't call this a failing of the book or author, but to gain the most from McInerney's apparent disdain for this world of empty celebrity, one has to have some knowledge or interest in it, whereas those of us who are genuinely uninterested in the world will have limited appreciation of the book.
25 February, 2004
Review: 'Hallucinating' (Stephen Palmer, 2004)
As I mentioned last month, a new sci-fi book has been released recently: 'Hallucinating', by Stephen Palmer.
This book was listed at Amazon as 'print on demand'. I'm not entirely sure what that means, and whether my copy was literally produced for me, in a print run of one. The cover price was certainly rather higher than that of a mass-market paperback.
A more significant question is whether this is a form of vanity publishing, whereby the author pays to have a book released rather than a publisher deciding to release a book purely on its literary/commercial merits. I don't think that was the case here, but 'Hallucinating' certainly seems to be under-edited. There are basic grammatic and even spelling errors throughout (for example 'alot' is used instead of 'a lot') and slang is used inappropriately (e.g. 'stylee' and 'choons' would be fine in dialogue, but aren't standard in third-person descriptive text) and inconsistently.
Particularly in the opening chapter, characters act with unnatural abruptness, which reads like work-in-progress, to be redrafted and filled-out before publication.
Conversely, the closing chapters suddenly explore, in depth, such abstract concepts as the nature of love and the purpose of laughter, which entirely ruins the pacing of the climactic scenes.
A decent editor could have suggested changes, and improved the result.
A central aspect of the book's marketing was that 'Hallucinating' features cameo appearences from musicians active in the 90s festival scene, such as Ed Wynne of the Ozric Tentacles, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, and Richard Allen of Delerium Records. No doubt my cursory mention of those names here will be picked up by the search engines and generate a few hits on this page; the book relies on the same effect, and the name-checks are about as meaningful.
The book is set in the years following 2049, so all these musicians are elderly and their roles in the book bear no relevance to their earlier careers. For instance, a lead character meets a member of a Somerset resistance group (don't worry, that makes sense in context), who just happens to be Ed Wynne, but there's no real reason why it needs to be Wynne; had it been anyone else, the effect on the plot would have been identical.
Similarly, another lead character visits a mystic hermit living in a Cornish cave. This oracle could have been anyone, but for no apparent reason, it's Steven Wilson. Worse, this episode is barely mentioned afterwards, and has absolutely no effect on the plot - had these 2½ pages been simply omitted outright, the story wouldn't have been changed.
Richard Allen appears for three pages, again in a pointless digression lasting only for those three pages. Palmer's own website offers a draft of the first 63 pages of the book (try it, you might like it). At the same point in that version, the Richard Allen subplot isn't even mentioned, and the result is identical. Likewise Michael Dog: one page in the book, nothing in the web-published draft; no real difference between the two.
I can't decide whether this is all just self-indulgence or cynical marketing. Either way, it's counterproductive.
Try the sample chapters, and judge for yourself, but as someone who has read the whole thing, I can't recommend it.
29 January, 2004
Porcupine Tree & Ozrics in print
I can't comment on his writing ('cos I haven't read any), but sci-fi author Stephen Palmer's new novel Hallucinating features cameo appearences from a number of real musicians, including Ministry of Info favourites Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) and Ed Wynne (Ozric Tentacles).
I'm not a fan of the more fantastical, far-future style of sci-fi, but if this new one is grounded in a more realistic, near-contemporary setting, I'm tempted to try it.
More at The Alien Online, though the link onwards to Palmer's (frankly, awful) site is vague; go straight here instead.
Examine the cover image quite closely - the promotional quote, apparently from a favourable review actually says:
"Quote placed here from reviews generated in 2003" Stephen Palmer, a Magazine.
NP: Ozric Tentacles, 'Afterswish'
(1998) - coincidentally ;)
13 January, 2004
Review: 'Microserfs' (Douglas Coupland, 1995)
Having recently read this for the third time, I'm still undecided about this book. It's written in the first person, essentially as a diary, so I'm unsure whether the written style is contrived, being that of the narrator, or whether that's just the way Coupland was naturally writing at the time.
Daniel thinks/writes almost in sound bites: fairly short, self-contained, generally declarative statements which tend towards the observational, occasionally analytical, but rarely experiential. That is, he recounts events, and offers a limited commentary on them, but there isn't always a sense of what the events meant to him or made him feel.
Even when such matters are more directly confronted, again he seems to catalogue his emotions almost as a detached observer, rather than giving an unguarded insight into the 'real' Daniel. Oversimplifying, to say "I felt sad" is merely an assemblage of three words, conveying little about the sensation of sadness, and providing little with which a reader can truly emphasise.
If Coupland has skilfully captured the mindset of an obsessive computer programmer, its an impressive book. However, the same effect could also result from the genuine written style of an inexperienced author, rendering the result merely lucky....
Overall, the story is pretty good. The disjointed plot (after part one, there's a gap of a month, then there's a further gap of three months between the penultimate and final chapters) is an interesting device, which fits - Daniel would have been busy/obsessed with other things during these times, so wouldn't have been keeping a diary - and certainly helps the story progress, which is a particular problem of this type of story. The narrator is so close to the details, discussing the minutiae of everyday life, that the overall plot could be lost unless the pace is 'forced'.
However, my central problem, of finding the narrator somewhat remote, remained a barrier to empathy, including with his family and colleagues. That may have been compounded by my limited familiarity with their setting - the artificiality of techie Seattle/Silicon Valley, a world of bland corporate logos and a sanitised, soulless built environment. They live in minimally personalised generic apartments and work in utilitarian cubicles, so it's hardly surprising that their humanity is masked.
Conversely, in the very drabness of their everyday existence, each character has his/her own pitiable quirk, such as poor self-esteem (intellectual and sexual), serious illness, or age-related unemployment; the overall feel of the book is downbeat. It would be revealing too much to say whether these aspects are satisfactorily resolved.
This is my second attempt at this posting. Somehow, I had two 'Create New Entry' windows open: the one in which I was writing, and another, blank. I closed one - the wrong one. I've retyped whilst it was reasonably fresh in my memory, but second attempts are never the same; my train of thought had moved on.
3 January, 2004
Review: 'The Fifth Elephant' (Terry Pratchett, 1999)
I've just finished reading this for the second, maybe third time. It's my favourite Discworld novel, superior because the characters are more three-dimensional, more realistic, less cartoonish.
As I've mentioned before, my taste in fantasy/sci-fi is for ordinary people acting naturally in extraordinary situations, rather than stylised 'high fantasy', 'sword and sorcery' or 'space opera' , with which I can't identify, and properly suspend disbelief. In 'The Fifth Elephant', Pratchett's characters and setting achieve a greater realism than before. The Discworld has matured; having established and refined the conventions, Pratchett can proceed to develop the characters as credible people. In the first few books of the City Guard thread, Sam Vimes is a combination of Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood, and primarily a means to advance the plot. In 'The Fifth Elephant', Sam Vimes is Sam Vimes, an established character rather than an amalgam of stereotypes/pop-cultural references, and a lifelike person with realistic, consistent thoughts, motivations and reactions - a 'proper' literary creation.
That's not particularly a criticism of the earlier books, as they're highly amusing and well-written (and researched - I don't think reviewers sufficiently acknowledge that), but the focus on plot and pastiche of numerous genres (opera, English folk music, fairy tales, Hollywood, etc.) has tended to leave the characters a little understated, perhaps even underdeveloped. I'm generalising, and there are exceptions, but on the whole one is told what a person did and said, and motivations are sketched in, but there isn't always more than a superficial sense of what the person felt, or why they reacted as they did. To use Vimes as an example again, in earlier appearences he responds as 'anyone' of his stereotype would in a given situation, but having added depth to the character, Pratchett is able to make Vimes behave more as a genuine individual, sometimes against type, as the reader has a better idea of how Sam would react, rather than a generic 'anyone'.
Some of the early Discworld novels were adapted into comic strip format, and a couple were made into animated films. It's an obvious development, and presumably successful, but I think emphasing the two-dimensional, comic elements is a mistake, belittling the richness of Pratchett's creation. I'd have preferred to see live-action films, with believable trolls, dwarfs, undead, orangutan, and Death integrated by 'photo-real' computer graphics; more like Peter Jackson's 'Lord Of The Rings' than the earlier animated version. The humour can come from the plot and dialogue, rather than the overall look.
Another distinguishing feature of 'The Fifth Elephant' is that it touches on weighty subjects - racism, cultural imperialism, sexism (superficially) - provoking thought without preaching. Even those who might scorn the fantasy elements of dwarfs, trolls and Ankh-Morpork could appreciate them as metaphors for real ethnic minorities and nation states.
NP: Porcupine Tree, Paris, 11/3/03
24 November, 2003
Review: 'American Gods' (Neil Gaiman, 2001)
Over the weekend, I read this novel; all 632 pages in about four sittings, which should give a clear idea of its draw.
There's no point in my going into detail, as I'm recommending you read it for yourself, but this is a book which sets out compelling ideas, then explores them in the context of a good story, which is precisely the criterion I find most attractive in a book.
To give an example: the central premise of 'American Gods' is that when immigrants traveled to North America, over thousands of years, they took with them the belief systems of 'the old country', including the stories of piskies, leprechauns - and deities. Conventional so far, but Gaiman goes on: what if that was to be considered literally? That the Vikings took a belief in Thor with them when they colonised North America, and hence an aspect of Thor is still there, personified? So what happened to him after the Norse religion declined to just a mythology? What happens to a god without believers? What do those ex-believers worship now? To be honest, the resolution of these core ideas is a bit disappointing in the book, and could have been taken further, but if a reader takes away fresh ideas and is stimulated to think for him/herself, that can only be considered a success.
One of my all-time favourite books is 'Snow Crash', by my fellow introvert Neal Stephenson. The first couple of pages introduce the lead character as a pizza delivery man in a black high-performance sports car, who habitually carries a pair of samurai swords. Having read those first pages, I could only grin; "A ninja pizza delivery man! Cool!" (irrespective of whether 'cool' is a fashionable word, it's the one that occurred to me at the time). The book went on to explore aspects of linguistics, ancient history and an interesting variant of virtual reality, all in an excellent cyberpunk story. It was that first page, though, that gave an initial thrill, and hooked me immediately.
'American Gods' has a few of those moments, often when one connects a casually-mentioned aspect of a character's appearance with another seemingly innocuous comment made 20-30 pages earlier, to realise that, say, the down-at-heel electrician one has become familiar with is really Zeus (I don't want to diminish the impact of the instances in the book, so that one was invented).
In his rambling way, Stephen King has the ability to get into his characters' heads, and give a sense of what it's like to be an American. Gaiman's writing doesn't have that unselfconscious ability, which is a minor problem when his characters occupy the same type of small town setting as King's; the comparison slightly interferes with suspension of disbelief, but only slightly.