Unmotivated to blog / write about what I’m reading, I didn’t even do an annual Books of The Year thing in October — and I’ve been doing that for ten years. “Life Project” and all (still quoting Emile on that), so … change and shit, I suppose. Still reading though, at a much diminished rate, partly because lack of time and energy and eyes needing a rest. Books have been read and are being read. No particular order.
Miri Song’s Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, ’cos I’m trying to understand myself, my family’s history, and all. You’d think by the time you’re in your forties, you’d have this somewhat nailed, but nope, thanks to family secrets and family aspirations to whiteness, or some shite. Like my middle name never blew that fantasy up.
Charles Stross’ The Labyrinth Index, nth book in a series I’m long over. I keep reading like an old lover whose time has passed and, yeah, Lovecraft mythos is really creaking on its Zimmer frame these days.
JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters. Very much a favourite author right now. South-East Asia is slaying it in the sci-fi / fantasy lately. I wish these were longer and JY Yang would write more. The so-far trilogy for some reason reminds me of The Water Margin (水滸傳, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), which is, I dunno, about as high praise as you can get from me.
Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman’s The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Only two references to Feersum Endjinn. I was broadly disappointed. More so because trying to divide Banks’ work up into skffy / non-skiffy, or sci-fi / non-sci-fi, is never going to work (and I’m not even going to start on the glaring errors referring to The Hydrogen Sonata). Ken McLeod’s essay was beautiful.
Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping: The Seventh Rivers of London novel. Still holding fast to ‘Harry Potter, a black cop from London estate’. Glad he finally dealt to the Faceless Man, and hope he moves on a bit from this narrative arc (apparently, yes, he is planning to). I’m likely to re-binge this series rather soon, while listing to proper LDN Grime.
Ruth Pearce’s Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility. Not fun reading. Considering lending to my endocrinologist because he gives a shit but I swear it’s like the last 30 years of ‘progress’ hasn’t happened in Germany. Primarily focussing on the UK and NHS, but I’ve dealt with health systems in several countries around the world (either Euro, or influenced by / aligned with Anglo models), and “Tru dat” was said a lot. Also “Fuck cis people”.
Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3. Reading a lot of series, me. This is the series where nothing much happens, in a rather large universe (of the world-building type, I mean; mostly takes up a small bit of a small bit of a galaxy). I’ll keep reading because for some reason I like the story.
Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits. Currently reading, and had been waiting for this for an age. Trans-dimensional, time-travelling corporeal horror. Once again, South-East Asia, and Singapore bringing it in the sci-fi / fantasy.
Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I’ve been reading her blog for years. I kind of talked back to her a lot while reading, particularly of the, “Well, if you’d read history, and get outside a euro-centric model of science and philosophy, maybe some of these ‘intractable’ problems wouldn’t be there in the first place?” A frustrating like.
Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis’s The Underwater Ballroom Society. Plus for the cover, plus also for Ysabeau S. Wilce, a stack of really good stories, probably going to have to read some of these authors.
Victor Mair’s translation of Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. He of the blog Language Log. Also been reading that for years. And I knew he was all about this stuff, but somehow blind spot assisted me in missing this. I like Zhuangzi heaps, my 404 is not complete without.
I also re-read a bunch of other novels, some Iain Banks, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy for the second time, even better than the first.
She will always be Servalan to me, Supreme Commander Servalan of the Terran Federation, eternal foe of Blake’s 7, Avon’s nemesis, best-dressed interstellar dictator four seasons running, the woman I wanted to grow up to be.
“a tasteless megalomaniac,” “a credit to her background – spoilt, idle, vicious,” “any attempt to embarrass her personally is an exercise in total futility,” “she has all the sensitive delicacy of a plasma bolt,” “the sexiest officer I have ever known.”
This turned out to be slightly more involved than anticipated. I should have known: Iain Banks is always in the details. Until starting this — and I’m still reading The Crow Road, for the maybe 3rd time — I hadn’t realised how fundamentally cars and vehicles form characters in his novels, much as landscape does, and if the landscape is up the Scottish end of town, the cars are solidly British, with rare excursions to various four-wheeled hoonage from across Europe.
I haven’t really decided how to do this, making it up as I go along, I thought to include the sentence where the car was named enough to make an educated guess at, which sometimes turned into multiple lines. Published in 1992, The Crow Road is set late–’89 to late–’90, at its most current period, with narratives in a number of periods back to just post–war. I’ve tried to match cars to the periods they were mentioned in, so no car is newer than end–’80s, and ‘old’ is 15–20 years minimum, relative to the scene’s time period. I discovered just how specific Banks was in choosing the ensemble of cars (2/3 of the way through and at least 27) when I was looking for an image of a Metro — Austin, MG, Rover, it got passed around — and found there was a period when it had no marque, it was just Metro. That’s the one he was talking about. And the Peugeot 209 isn’t, so either that’s an error, or this is Banks subtly trolling his Scottish alternate / coexisting realities again, like in Whit or The Business. In this reality, probably a 205.
And thank you to Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and all the contributors, editors, photographers who enlightened and educated me, and provided the images for this banger collection of whips here.
That’s enough. Here are the cars of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.
Instead I’d sold Fraud Siesta, my Car.
‘The car; it’s a Lagona Rapide Saloon’
‘Yes,’ I said, smiling a little ruefully to myself. ‘Yes, I know’
The car came screaming up the crematorium drive, leaves swirling into the air behind. It was a green Rover, and had to be doing sixty.
Everybody in the crowd outside the crematorium was watching the green 216 as it skidded to a stop, avoiding a head-on collision with the Urvill’s Bentley Eight by only a few centimetres.
The big Super Snipe growled into the car park, heeling as it turned and stopping with the passenger’s door opposite Kennith.
‘Anyway, couldn’t we take the Rover?’ Kenneth wasn’t keen on the Morgan; its stiff ride hurt his back and gave him a headache, and Fergus drove too fast in the ancient open-top. Maybe it was the sight of all that British Racing Green paint and the leather strap across the bonnet. The Rover, 3.5 though it was, seemed to calm Fergus a little.
The upholstery of Fergus’s Rover was cleansed of the debris and stains associated with Verity’s birth and the car continued to serve the Urvill family for another five years or so until 1975, when it was traded in (for what Prentice thereafter would maintain was a scandalously small sum, considering that the thing ought to have been preserved as some sort of internationally-recognised shrine to Beauty) for an Aston Martin DB6.
“We got into the Fiesta; she dumped the brolly in the back.”
I kind of wished I’d sat behind Verity; I wouldn’t have seen so much of her – not even a hint of that slim, smooth face, frowning in concentration as she barrelled the big black Beemer towards the next corner – but I wouldn’t have been able to see the speedometer either.
Verity wiggled her bottom, plonked it back down, calmly braked and shifted up to fifth, dawdling along behind the green Parceline truck while she waited for it to overtake an Esso tanker.
Her battered, motley-panelled 2CV had looked out of place in Ascot Square, where I think that anything less than a two-year old Golf GTi, Peugeot 209 or Renault 5 was considered to be only just above banger status, even as a third car, let alone a second.
‘I play games’, she told me.
‘Yeah,’ she nodded, licking her lips, ‘Like Name That Tail-Light.’
‘What?’ I laughed
‘True,’ she said. ‘See that car up ahead?’
I looked at the two red lights. ‘Yeah.’
‘See how high up the lights are, not too far apart?’
‘Mm-hmm. One it’s overtaking?’
‘Horizontally divided lights; that’s an old Cortina, mark 3.’
‘Here’s a Beemer. New five series … I think, about to pass us; should have lights that slant in slightly at the bottom. ’
Verity Walker, clad in a short black dress, was dancing sinuously on the roof of Uncle Fergus’ Range Rover.
‘Ha!’ Prentice said, as the battered Cortina II drew to a stop just past them.
He helped Fergus drag the small corpse down the slope to the track, where the Land Rover was parked, and accepted a lift back to the road.
An hour or so later I saw my mother’s green Metro, just about to turn out of the drive-way of Hamish and Tone’s house.
‘Na,’ he said. The Volvo estate accelerated down the straight through the forest towards Port Ann. ‘Though maggoty meat and people with one eye did come into it at one point.’
Fiona brought the Rover to a halt behind a beaten-up Mini, standing on the gravel in front of the castle’s main entrance.
‘Isn’t that Fergus?’ he said, nodding.
‘Racing green Jag, heading north.’
‘Is that what Ferg’s driving these days?’ Rory said, rising up in his seat a little to watch the car pass.
I’ve always had this fantasy, that, after uncle Rory borrowed his flat-mate Andy’s motorbike and headed off into the sunset, he crashed somewhere, maybe coming down to Gallanach; came off the road and fell down some gully nobody’s looked into for the last ten years, or – rather more likely, I suppose – crashed into the water, and there’s a Suzuki 185 GT lying just under the waves of Lock Lomond, or Loch Long, or Loch Fyne, its rider somehow entangled in it, reduced by now to a skeleton in borrowed leathers, somewhere underwater, perhaps between here and Glasgow; and we all pass it every time we make the journey, maybe only a few tens of metres away from him, and very probably will never know.
One of my pals — graduated, employed, moving on to better things — sold me his old VW Golf, and I drove down to Lochgair most weekends, usually on a Thursday night as I didn’t have any classes on a Friday.
We took Lewis and Verity’s new soft-top XR3i — roof down, heater up full — out into the grey-pink dawn and drove through Lochgilphead and then into Gallanach and just cruised about the town, waving at the people still walking about the place and shouting Happy New Year! one and all.
I parked the Golf behind a Bristol Brigand which sat half on the gravel and half on the grass.
“What if, Frances, what if we were to read all Iain Banks’ novels again—”
“Again? Like for the 6th time? All of them?”
“Nah, just the ones set on Earth—”
“So the ones without the M.?”
“Right, and we were to—”
“Except for Transition, ’cos that was an M. one in the States, but set on Earth. A bit. And a non-M. one everywhere else.”
“Yeah, but primarily the—”
“Also The State of the Art. That’s also an M. one, and Culture. And on Earth. What about Raw Spirit? And Poems?”
“’Cos Raw Spirit is basically Complicity but real. With hooning and whisky; hooning for whisky. But no poetically deserved death.”
“Definitely Raw Spirit. Starting with The Crow Road—”
“We’re reading that now!”
“It’s not as good as The Steep Approach to Garbadale is it?”
“They all have cars though.”
“Iain was a hoon.”
“Until he wasn’t.”
“So what if we did a post of each novel, of just the cars!”
“Kinda like how we were going to do a post of each episode of Blake’s 7 of just the costumes?”
“Sounds great! Does this mean we’ll sit in front of our laptop and try to divine what each make and model of car is? For hours and hours?”
“This gonna be one of those ‘What happens if I … ?’ that turns into ‘Well, seemed like a good idea at the time’ things, innit?”
“As in ‘What happens if I blog all the cars of Iain Banks’ novels oh God this turned into so much work what have I gotten us into am I even having fun anymore why did I decide to do this again well it seemed like a good idea at the time?’”
“Track record points to yes!”
“OMG count me in!”
“We’re so good together!”
“I know, right! When do we start?”
“We already have!”
One of the very first Iain M. Banks novels I read (I think Consider Phlebas or Excession was the first), in Naarm (Melbourne) around 2004. That edition had the cover with the Sharrow’s Monowheel on the cover, probably my favourite series of Banks’ cover artwork, that edition; this one has the burning reds and oranges of the ships of Log Jam city. Against a Dark Background is the second novel Banks wrote, or drafted, after Use of Weapons, around 17 years before it was published in 1993, the same year as Complicity, and a year before his next novel, my unwavering favourite, Feersum Endjinn.
When I was looking for the cover art, I discovered a new critical work on Banks, The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, edited by Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and Joseph Norman. Much joy in finding that, and ordering as soon as bookshops open. Though I suspect I’ll be a little frustrated at the artificial division between Iain with and without an M.
The morse-code finger-tapping on skin communication method makes an appearance, I think that showed up also in Feersum Endjinn and maybe The Business — one day I might make a spreadsheet of all the various recurring themes in Banks’ novels, all of them, not arbitrarily splitting fiction and science-fiction, Culture and non-Culture, M. and no M. This could even be a novel set on the same Earth as Feersum Endjinn (and so also grazing the edge of the Culture) with all the specific technology and attitudes towards it, were it not for the part where Banks describes the Golter system as isolated by a million light years in all directions from any neighbouring galaxy. It occurs to me now it still could be. The end of Feersum Endjinn sees the titular fearsome engine come into motion, slowly, gradually moving the entire solar system out and away from an encroaching interstellar dust cloud. Vast, incomprehensible, uncontrollable technology left by long-distant previous generations and cultures, just as in Against a Dark Background.
It’s a sprawling, meandering, disorientating story, traversing landscape and planets, closest to The Algebraist in structure, and the kind of hopeless loss and existential bleakness of Alastair Reynolds novels. I’ve never seen it rated highly among either pop culture discussions of Banks or critical appraisals, perhaps because it doesn’t have the seductive space opera-ness of say, Excession, or the solid maturity of his later novels like The Hydrogen Sonata. I think there’s a set of his novels, read together or in various combination, which constitute what he was really on about, but only if we ignore those forced divisions: Feersum Endjinn (obviously), The Business, Whit, Against a Dark Background, The Hydrogen Sonata, The Bridge, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and maybe — or swapping in and out — The Algebraist, Inversions and The Crow Road. I also thought there was a way to read (or rewrite) all his novels into a single, long chronological story, but that’s just being clever.
Anyway, Against a Dark Background, one of Iain M. Banks’ underrated works of melancholy beauty.
A little short of good new reading at the moment, so ever-reliable Uncle Iain it is. I first read Complicity in Zürich, 2005, when I was working with Nigel Charnock and staying up up up the hill from Tanzhaus Wasserwerk. The woman I was staying with had a copy on her shelf, a mass market edition with the pulpy red and black portrait cover, the same one I just read.
This isn’t going to be one of those 3000-word essays like I did on Feersum Endjinn, Whit, or The Business, but I did notice a couple of things in this early-’90s Scotland novel of Iain without-the-M Banks. The main character, journalist Cameron Colley is a thinly disguised Banks, who does a deliberately lazy job of pointing this out by having the first person Cameron meets be another journalist called Iain. Haw haw. The other main character, murderous literalist Andy, is a childhood friend of Cameron, with whom the following happens during a phone conversation:
“You ever go the other way these days?”
“You know, with guys.”
“What? Good grief, no. I mean …” I look at the receiver in my hand. “No,” I say.
“Hey, I just wondered.”
“Why, do you?” I ask, and then regret the tone because it sounds like I’m at least disapproving if not actually homophobic.
“Na,” Andy says. “Na, I don’t … I kind of … you know, I lost interest in all that stuff.” He chuckles, and I imagine again that I hear the noise echoing in the dark hotel. “It’s just, you know; old habits die hard.”
Maybe it was because I was just coming off watching Sense8, but I pretty much went, “Oh, that makes sense, he was bi.” Like much of his not-even-bothering-to-pretend insertions of self as characters, much in his novels is rooted in Banks himself. His love of hoonage and drugs, how he relates to the landscape of Scotland, his politics and imagining of a kind of trans queer multi-ethnic utopia in the Culture, imply writing Cameron and Andy (who is a tooled-up variation on himself) as bi isn’t a throwaway — especially for a nominally straight white guy who came of age in Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a clear note to himself and his readers that carries across time.
The other thing which occurred to me is to do with a particular billionaire who has based his career around stealing the work of Kate Telman from The Business, names ships after Culture novels, loudly imagines himself on Twitter to be some kind of living embodiment of very early pre-Culture civilisation, and who recently proclaimed, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks”. Yeah, nah mate. You’re so fucking wrong the needle on your tank of correct is pinned to E.
There is one character in the many Banks novels who in fact is Elon Musk, and he’s in Complicity. William. Greed is Good William, unethical investments William, buying a knighthood, “putting respectable amounts into Tory coffers,” trading in his wife “for a more up-market, user-friendly model, preferably one with her own title” William. William, “strapped to the internal bracing of the [garage] door with tape and twine around his wrists and ankles, his head covered with a black rubbish bag, tied tight around his throat with more black tape, his body limp,” dealt to by Andy. That’s what Banks thinks of the likes of Musk, he made it clear 25 years ago. At the end of Complicity, Cameron finds he has lung cancer; Banks himself only made it another twenty years. But Andy, Banks never sold him out, sent him off in an inflatable from Inchmickery in the Firth of Forth, “I might retire now, while I’m ahead. But on the other hand, there are still a lot of bastards out there.”
Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists: