Sunday, 30 December 2012

Year in Books 2012



Year in Books 2012

I’ve been told several times that I read a lot but I’ve never been sure if it’s true or not. I’ve never been one to devour a novel a week or spend my nights curled up by the fire, books in hand. Looking down at the list of what I’ve got through this year however, I feel a tingle of pride, It’s a fairly impressive list, a little heavy on the comics perhaps but those are quicker to read.
This has been the first year where I’ve kept track of what I’ve read, I don’t think I’ve missed any, so here it is, the whole shebang, my year in books.

Novels
The girl with the dragon tattoo – Stieg Larsson
The gril who played with fire – Stieg Larsson
The Water-method Man – John Irving
The 158-pound marriage – John Irving
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Girl who kicked the hornet’s nest – Stieg Larsson
Nosferatu in love – Jim Shepard
Animal Farm – George Orwell
The Fault in our stars – John Green
The Hunger games – Suzanne Collins
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Stephen King
The Nosferatu Scroll – James Becker
Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett
The World According to Garp – John Irving
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
And Another thing… - Eoin Colfer
A son of the Circus – John Irving
Who Censored Roger Rabbit? – Gary Wolf
Tietam Brown – Mick Foley
The Stand – Stephen King
Kitty and the Midnight hour – Carrie Vaughn
AHistory Maker – Alasdair Grey
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
The peculiar memories of Thomas Penman – Bruce Robinson
Monkey – Wu Cheng’En
Black Box – Jennifer Egan
Pyramids – Terry Pratchett
The Crow Road – Ian Banks
Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Biography/Memoirs
Brautigan, Richard: A pilgrimage August 1975 – David Curran
On Writing – Stephen King
The Hardcore Diaries – Mick Foley
I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone

Comics/Graphic Novels
Bring me the head of Willy the mail boy – Scott Adams
Don’t step in the leadership – Scott Adams
Casual day has gone too far – Scott Adams
Another day in cubicle paradise – Scott Adams
Don’t stand where the comet is expected to strike oil – Scott Adams
Fugitive from the cubicle police – Scott Adams
Church & State I – Dave Sim
Church & State II – Dave Sim & Gerhard
Jaka’s Story – Dave Sim & Gerhard
Melmoth – Dave Sim & Gerhard
Flight – Dave Sim & Gerhard
Transmetropolitan: Lonely City – Warren Ellis & Darrick Robertson
Akira Vol I – Katsuhiro Otomo
Akira Vol II – Katsuhiro Otomo
Cancer Vixen – Marisa Acocella Marchetto
Women – Dave Sim & Gerhard
Reads – Dave Sim & Gerhard
Minds – Dave Sim * Gerhard
Sonic the Comic Issues #1 - 89
Anne Frank: The Anne Frank house authorized graphic biography – Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colon
Sonic Select Volume I

Non-fiction
Writing For Comics – Alan Moore
Creating 3D animation – Peter Lord & Brian Sibley
Batman Unauthorized – Dennis O’Neil

Children’s Books
Sonic: The story
My dad is a loser – Barry Loser
Diary of a wimpy kid: Cabin Fever – Jeff Kinney
I want my hat back – Jon Klassen

Other
Fifty Sheds of Grey: A parody – C.T. Grey

Best books of the year
5- Reads – Dave Sim & Gerhard
4- The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
3- The World According to Garp – John Irving
2- The Fault in our stars – John Green
1- Tietam Brown – Mick Foley


Worst books of the year
5- Writing For Comics – Alan Moore
4- The Girl who kicked the hornet’s nest – Stieg Larsson
3- Creating 3D animation – Peter Lord & Brian Sibley
2- Kitty and the Midnight hour – Carrie Vaughn
1- The Nosferatu Scroll – James Becker

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

I had a black dog



I had a black dog

Matthew Johnstone

"There are many different breeds of Black Dog affecting millions of people from all walks of life. The Black Dog is an equal opportunity mongrel. It was Winston Churchill who popularized the phrase Black Dog to describe the bouts of depression he experienced for much of his life. Matthew Johnstone, a sufferer himself, has written and illustrated this moving and uplifting insight into what it is like to have a Black Dog as a companion and how he learned to tame it and bring it to heel."

Monday, 19 November 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever




Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever
Jeff Kinney

I’ve kind of missed the boat on this series, it’s been immensely popular, spawning seven books, three films, toys, games and various other spin off thingamajigs. I have also broken my rule of only starting with the first in a series, instead my introduction to the Wimpy Kid is the sixth title in the series.

Obviously this is a book aimed at eight to ten year olds and, as such, is unlikely to satisfy your literary cravings but you know what? It’s really funny.
I read this in one go, (no mean feat, it’s quite short) and I loved it. It’s a very funny book, written well, with a suitable amount of jokes both for kids and adults. Children’s books that try to appeal to grown ups always run the risk of not providing content for the true audience, the children. Not so here, the jokes are for kids but with a wry nod towards adults, more a smirk out of the corner of the mouth than an outright punchline. Children will laugh at Greg’s virtual pet, and parents will emphasise with his poor mum, constantly forking out cash for clothes for a dog that doesn’t exist.

The plot is light and delightfully all over the place. A book about being trapped in a house during a snow storm could be clichéd but it’s touched upon only very briefly towards the end with the majority of the book reading more like a series of quick sketches, none of which are long enough to outstay their welcome or too short to be entertaining.

I really enjoyed this book, to the point that I will be actively ncouraging my girlfriend’s little sister (from whom I stole this copy) to buy more of them so I can steal them away for myself.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Pyramids



Pyramids
Terry Pratchett

Over the past couple of years I have been engaged in the mammoth challenge of reading the entire Discworld Series in order. No easy task for a series which currently sits at thirty seven titles (over forty if you include the science books and other various titles).  So far in my quest I have managed to get through the first seven books in the series, the most recent of which is Pyramids.

Pyramids is quite a different book from the six previous. For the most part the other titles have stayed located around the same general area, the city of Ankh-Morpork and the surrounding country, while the city does make an appearance the majority of the novel is spent in on the other side of the disc in a dessert culture named Djelebeybi.

Djelebeybi is the Discworld equivalent of ancient Egypt and we are introduced to many amusing parodies on the Egyptian way of life (mummifying kings inside gigantic  pyramids even though building these monoliths is bankrupting the country) and an overall mockery of the notion of pyramid power.
However, I don’t feel this book works as well as previous instalments in the series, it’s still a very funny book but I didn’t get as many belly laughs as I had reading the last book in the series (Wyrd Sisters). The plot rambles a little and the book could stand to be slightly shorter overall.

There are still a wealth of funny moments, the idea that camels are great mathematicians but keep the knowledge secret so humans won’t kill them to find how their brains work, just not a wealth on par with the other books that came before it.

It’s hard really to recommend a Discworld book anyway, the whole series should be viewed intact, taking a single book  out of the large body of work seems wrong somehow.
If you are reading the series as  a whole, you’ll find this a weaker entry but one that does a great job of expanding the disc and fleshing out a world that so far we’ve seen quite little of.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Black Box



Black Box
Jennifer Egan

Black Box is an e-book only release from Jennifer Egan, the author of A Visit from the goon squad. It tells the story of an unnamed female (possibly one of the characters from Goon Squad), a civilian, forced to become a spy. Throughout the story we are given little to no information on her mission.

I thoroughly enjoyed Egan’s A visit from the goon squad, a rich blend of different characters and writing styles. And though many chastised it as a short story collection masquerading as a novel I found the book a wonderful, fresh piece of writing and consumed it over the course of two or three days.
 Black Box is her follow-up, not a novel this time but a single stand alone short story available on E-readers exclusively.
The book garnered attention due to its format. Looking at your kindle screen the book appears as a collection of sentences, each one to it’s own paragraph. In actual fact the book is a succession of Tweets, published on the New Yorker’s twitter feed over the course of nine days earlier this year.
It would be easy to write this Twitter-novel off as a publicity stunt but Egan has defended it, saying that the tradition of using real world mediums in writing is as old aswriting itself. This is indeed true, Dracula takes the form of Diary entries, characters learning of other characters movements by reading each others journals. We need to talk about Kevin is written as a series of letters. Salmon fishing in the Yemen, a collection of leaked government documents, emails and magazine interviews. The problem with slotting Twitter into this tradition however is that twitter heavily dictates the story, allowing only 140 characters at a time.

Despite these constraints though, Egan manages to weave a very well considered story. I found myself reading the book slowly, savouring every sentence as there is so little text to devour. Some of these tweets ring with true beauty though I must admit it does occasionally feel like you’re reading a teenagers pretentious twitter feed.. After a while however I stopped thinking of the story surrounding the story and was able to enjoy the book, not as an exercise in a new medium but as a really great story on it’s own merits. Readers who like a dense piece of writing will be left wanting here, little information is given away, we never learn the characters name, never really discern her location or ever fully understand what the mission she has been tasked with actually is. Instead we are given snapshots of the story, brief windows or dialogue or introspection.

I massively enjoyed this story and look forward to reading Egan’s other works. Overall, though it’s obviously an experiment, Spartan and you’ll finish it in one sitting, I heartily recommend you seek this one out.

Monkey



Monkey
Wu Ch’eng-en
Translated by Arthur Waley

"Also known as Journey to the West, Wu Ch'êng-ên's Monkey is one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature, translated by Arthur Waley in Penguin Classics.

Monkey depicts the adventures of Prince Tripitaka, a young Buddhist priest on a dangerous pilgrimage to India to retrieve sacred scriptures accompanied by his three unruly disciples: the greedy pig creature Pipsy, the river monster Sandy - and Monkey. Hatched from a stone egg and given the secrets of heaven and earth, the irrepressible trickster Monkey can ride on the clouds, become invisible and transform into other shapes - skills that prove very useful when the four travellers come up against the dragons, bandits, demons and evil wizards that threaten to prevent them in their quest. Wu Ch'êng-ên wrote Monkey in the mid-sixteenth century, adding his own distinctive style to an ancient Chinese legend, and in so doing created a dazzling combination of nonsense with profundity, slapstick comedy with spiritual wisdom".

My first experience of Journey to the west was the 1970’s TV show monkey, a Japanese take on the tale starring Masaaki Saki in the titular role. The show, when translated into English was done with a self aware, self parodying style. It knew it was over the top kung fu nonsense and it was proud of it.
The original novel from which it came however, is considered one of the great classical novels of China and has survived since the 16th century.

The story is of Tripitaka, a young Buddhist priest charged with travelling to India to find scriptures of Buddhist teachings. Along the way he picks up three disciples, Monkey, the ruler of the kingdom of the water curtain cave who was imprisoned under a rock after causing trouble in heaven, Pigsy a pig demon who has been kicked out of heaven and Sandy, a fish demon of similar predicament. They are also joined by a dragon who turns into a horse.

The book is  highly episodic, every chapter or so Tripitaka is captured by demons or the group meet a stranger with some sort of demonic problem and it is up to monkey to save the day.
Occasionally these chapters feature human foes but more often than not the fiend is some form of animal demon. Some of the chapters featuring humans feel rather like episodes of propaganda, the chapter, for example, where the four come upon a land ruled by a Taoist king who has made slaves of the Buddhists. Tripitaka must then prove Buddhism’s superiority over Taoism in a series of tests (all of which it is perhaps worth noting, monkey cheat in).
The story dates from a time where written novels and the rules of story telling were still somewhat in their infancy, therefore the straight forward style of writing feels incredibly dated, there are none of the flourishes of prose we expect of such novels and the characterisation is occasionally laughable. During a scene were Monkey first learns to fly on the clouds, the students ion his class show no real amazment at this impossible skill, remarking only,
“Monkey is in luck, - one way or another he will always be able to pick up a living”

The main problem with this book was the translation I picked up. Arthur Waley’s interpretation (which features a name change from “Journey to the west” to “Monkey, perhaps to associate itself more with the TV show) is a drastically shortened version of the original tale. In fact the one hundred chapters that make up the book are chopped down to thirty, excising over half the story. This is done to cut down on the repetitious chapters in the middle of the book but even the chapters that remain are heavily altered too, removing much of the descriptive passages.
I was also disappointed to find Sandy, my favourite character from the TV show, practically non-existent in this version, only occasionally piping up with a sentence or two before falling silent for chapter upon chapter.

It is a wonderful story though, albeit one which feels a little barebones in places. It has stood the test of time and while it is not as famous as other classical works like the Iliad and odyssey, I would recommend it. I would love to read it again in an unabridged form and may one day return to review this book as it was meant to be read.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Sonic: The Story



Sonic: The Story

"An account of the superhero's rise from his humble beginnings as an ordinary hedgehog to his status of saviour of the planet Mobius. This book gives the lowdown on the hedgehog with attitude and introduces the evil genius Dr Robotnik and his plans to trap and enslave Sonic's friends."
 
Sonic: the Story was originally published in 1994 to promote the Sonic the hedgehog ahead of the release of Sonic 3. It aims to tell the origin story of Sonic and it told from the perspective of Sonic’s best friend Tails.

Well, that’s what it’s meant to do, however, in the early 90’s it was pretty common practise for Japanese games to be reconceptualised when released  in America and Europe, this would occasionally mean characters names would change (Like Sonic’s nemisis Dr. Robotnik, who had his name changed from Dr. Eggman) and sometimes games whole stories. Game art would also sometimes be swapped and censored.

In the case of Sonic the hedgehog this resulted in three separate versions of the Sonic character and story, the original Japanese, the American (which featured characters like sally acorn and the cast of the satAM cartoon series) and the European/U.K. version. So, when it says this book is telling the origin story of Sonic, it’s actually telling the U.K. version and not the true origin story…..confused yet?

What’s it matter? Well the U.K. story is completely different from both other versions. In this version, Sonic is originally Brown and is only turned blue when he first breaks the sound barrier while running. It also introduces the character of Dr. Ovi Kintobor (a character unseen in the original story) a kindly scientist who, after an explosion, isturned into the evil Dr. Ivo Robotnik (see what they did there?).

Ok so now that’s sorted, onto the book itself, the story’s not great but it’s obviously written for little kids, it tries very hard to show how cool sonic is, an annoying trait of any Sonic merch at the time. The highlight of the book for me was the art, each page has lovely full colour illustrations, sadly the artist is left uncredited, as is the writer of the story. Not an uncommon practise for this type of book but it’s a shame that there aren’t even any credits in small print tucked on the inside cover.

It’s not a terrible book, like I’ve said, it’s for kids and kids would probably enjoy it. It tells a story that the sonic games from 1999 onward have abandoned so it feel quite quaint and out of date.
If you’re a Sonic fan or collector though, you could do worse than add this to your collection. 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman



The peculiar memories of Thomas Penman
Bruce Robinson

"Thomas Penman is the acclaimed autobiographical debut novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Robinson, the author of "Withnail and I". This is the story of a dysfunctional family. It is about a boy and his grandpa, life and death, sex and hate, dog's meat and cancer. It is also about pornography, enemas, Morse codes, puberty, secrets, God and loathing. It is also about love."

Bruce Robinson is the filmmaker responsible for two of my favourite films Withnail & I and How to get ahead in advertising, you would think therefore that his novel would mean instantaneous glee for me. However, upon purchasing The peculiar memories of Thomas Penman I placed it at the bottom of my “to read” pile, where it lay forgotten for four years. I have now read the book and regret terribly my actions because it is a fantastic read.

The story centres around Thomas Penman, a boy obsessed with finding the key to a locked filing cabinet containing his dying Grandfather’s pornography collection.
The characters are imaginative and the situations Thomas finds himself in are unique and brilliantly portrayed. What other book contains a scene where the main character finds photographs of his grandfather posing nude with a woman who has a live duck shoved up her arse?

The style is what you would expect of Bruce Robinson from his film work. Witty and well written with comic characters showing more than a hint of darkness about them. I was reminded at times of The Wasp Factory, and though the book never matches it in terms of darkness it always seems like it’s not far from doing so.
In essence it is a simply coming of age tale and certain plot points could read as clichéd, Robinson is able however to avoid cliché by warping these tropes almost beyond recognition. It is only when looked at in hindsight that you can see these scenes shine through.
I must also mention the ending. I won’t spoil it but I must say that it possibly the most heartbreaking ending to a story I have ever read and is the closest I have ever  come to crying at a book.

I simply couldn’t recommend this enough, it is a great book, one I can see becoming an instant favourite of many who will pick it up, a novel few are likely to forget.

p.s.
I have avoided mentioning anything about book design in these reviews for the simple fact that, were you to pick any of these books up, chances are they will have a different cover that the one I have read. I must say however the cover photograph for this book, taken by Matt Harris is one of the most arresting book jackets I have ever seen. It is a beautiful photograph and as I lay the book around my house, I was always surprised to find Thomas’ eyes staring back at me. The fact that there is no text on the cover emphasises this, it is just the boy, staring. I love it.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Lolita





Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov

Any novel, film or piece of art that is mired in controversy falls into one of two categories. Either the work is genuinely shocking or the controversy is ridiculously overblown. Sadly, whichever of the two a piece falls under, the story tends to become more about the controversy than whatever the work was about in the first place.

I went into Lolita knowing little about the plot rather than the obvious controversial points. It is a novel about a man in love with an underage girl. Having now read it, I must admit I feel the book falls most assuredly into the overblown category. In fact the two points on which I thought the controversy was based simply don’t seem to exist.

Yes, the main character is a paedophile but I do not feel he is ever presented as a character we are made to sympathise with. Certainly he is a witty and occasionally charming man, but I don’t feel we are ever presented with Humbert Humbert as a likable person. Even the character himself says repeatedly how deplorable his actions are.
Also, the novel is not gratuitous, in fact, even after H.H. and Lolita finally do enter into a sexual relationship, it is passed over in a sentence and Humbert instead describes in great detail the year long road trip the two embark on afterwards.

A novel with this subject matter was always going to ruffle feathers, however, the most controversial thing about the novel that I can find is that it is oddly unclear what Nabokov I trying to tell us. The book doesn’t come across as particularly pro or anti paedophile and leaves the reader to make their own choices.

Overall I simply found this book boring. The writing style is very dense and I enjoyed it at the beginning, as the novel progressed however I grew weary. Also, I understand that Nabokov is writing is his second language but a large percentage of the dialogue is in English so unbelievable that it borders on unreadable.

Overall, I simply didn’t like this book and struggled to make it to the end. A book so weighed down by that surrounds it that it is truly disappointing to discover so unimpressive a book underneath.

Batman Unauthorized



Batman Unauthorized
edited by
Dennis O’ Neil

I was given this book a few years ago by a friend I’d met through youtube. We decided we would each send the other a copy of our favourite book, so I ended up sending a copy of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar off to America and waiting with baited breath for the arrival of my package. When it finally arrived I tore  open the package to find….a collection of essays?.....about Batman?
I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. This is actually a pretty awesome collection, and one I have returned to fairly regularly over the years.

As I said above, Batman Unauthorized is a collection of essays dealing with the various aspects of the Batman mythology. The book was released in the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight so many of the writers are still riding the high of rekindled interest in the franchise that Nolan’s movie created. In fact a couple of the early essays could have been re-titled “Great flick Chris, good job” without much change to their subject matter. I would have preferred at least a little diversity in opinion rather than have the movie portrayed as the best thing to ever happen to the bat (or am I the only one to think it was awful?)

The book does a good job of covering a wide range of topics, from in depth character analysis of character like Batman, The Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul, the differences between the various movie incarnations and even a discussion of Batman in terms of semiotics. Of course, with all collections of this nature there’ll be parts you love and parts you hate (Alex Bledsoe’s To the Batpole, in which we are presented with three variations on a conversation between Alfred and the young Bruce Wayne on the subject of masturbation is a particularly low point).

A couple of the essays, Batman in outer space by Mike W Barr and Frank Miller’s New Batman and the grotesque by Geoff Klock read a little too much like fanboy ramblings. The Frank Miller essay especially in which Klock argues that no matter how awful Frank Miller’s recent batman outings have been, it is our fault for not understanding the genius of Miller, his argument never really extending beyond “No, no, Miller meant that bit to make no sense. He’s just great!”

When it’s good it’s great though. Michael Marano’s Ra’s Al Ghul: Father figure as terrorist, Paul Lytle’s The madness of Arkham Asylum and Alan J Porter’s The dubious origins of the Batman are all great pieces that shed a light on a lot off different topics.
A personal favourite is Darren Hudson Hick’s The cost of being Batman in which thewriter puts together a shopping list of what the reader will need if he/she plans on becoming Batman themselves and how much it will cost (Spoiler: You can’t afford it).

This is a really great book with something for everyone, if you’re already a batman fan you’ll discover a lot of new information and be given fresh perspective on a lot of topics or if you’re a newcomer looking for an in to what can seem a daunting body of work this book can help you get a basic knowledge on the caped crusader’s world.
It’s good, you should give it a shot.
All together now, na na na na na na na na na na na na….

Monday, 17 September 2012

A History Maker




A History Maker
Alasdair Gray 

"A tale of border warfare, military and erotic, set in the twenty-third century, where the women rule the kingdom and the men play war games. This is the fictional memoir of Wat Dryhope, son of Ettrick Forestis twenty-third century chieftain - edited, annotated and commented upon. History has come to an end, war is regulated as if it's all a game. But Wat, the History Maker himself, does not play entirely by the rules, and when a woman, Delilah Puddock, joins the fray, this 'utopian' history is further enlivened. Alasdair Gray cleverly plays with the notion and writing of history, as well as perennial modern debates on war, sexism and society - entertaining and thought-provoking, this is a delightful satire illustrated throughout by the author."

Alasdair Gray’s debut, Lanark, is one of my favourite books and I would argue that its epilogue is one of the greatest moments of any novel ever. That said, I must admit I’m not massively familiar with much else of his work so I make sure to pick up the odd book of his whenever I get the chance.

A History Maker is based on a play also written by Gray called The History Maker and tells the story of Wat Dryhope, a man out of place in a matriarchal society where women run communal tribes leaving the men to play soldiers in bloody televised battles. The utopian society is powered by household power stations which reconstitute the dead bodies of soldiers into anything the householders could wish for, As a result, there is no need for manual labour.

On the surface this could be looked at as a fairly typical story, a futuristic society peopled by uniformly minded characters with a single main character who sees a flaw in the way the society is run. It’s a story we’ve seen a dozen times, in works by Orwell and Huxley and in the films of Fritz Lang. Here however there’s something different. The world itself feels fresh, at once a Scotland that seems at home in a gleaming future-scape, the present day and the days of the Roman empire. There’s also a great sense of not knowing quite what’s going on. Having completed the novel I’m still not 100% on a lot of what I read. With most novels this would be a bad thing, but not so with Gray’s work. Here, as in Lanark, there is a sense that Gray is deliberately withholding information from the reader. Creating a world as confusing to the reader as it is to Dryhope himself.
This sense of withheld information is backed up by the large body of notes that make up almost a third of the total book. These intricate notes serve multiple purposes. They offer translations of Scots phrases for non Scots readers as well as mini lectures on the history of war and information on songs, poems and stories by the likes of Burns and Hogg. Most interesting however, are large sections that tell very important parts of the story not included in the actual text of the novel. These sections deal with what happens to the characters after the novel itself has ended and are not included until the very end of the notes. There is a feeling of Gray playfully using these to keep the true end of the story hidden from readers who have either given up on reading the historical notes or skipped over them entirely.

If that doesn’t put you off then I would  definitely recommend you read this book. Despite all the confusion the books is a brilliantly crafted piece of work, at once a bluffers history of Scotland, and allegory of the futility of war, utopian science fiction and historical epic all topped off with Gray’s wonderful illustrations. It’s just bloody good. Read it.