Defending the Love of Reading

World Book Day happened last week and I was pleased to see so many children getting involved in dressing as their favourite characters. World Book Day is a great day to champion quite how magical reading a good story can be and the levels of participation seen across the country.

Last week also saw the frankly heart-breaking story of Callum Manning, a 13-year-old boy from Newcastle bullied for his love of reading.

Callum’s story really got to me as I do relate very much – even from my own secondary school days, reading was an almost weird activity to admit to enjoying. Perhaps that’s due  to secondary school being the domain of adolescents with other more physical pursuits that leaves those content with nestling away with a book in the library seen as “abnormal”.

As a secondary school kid myself back in 2001 I found it very difficult to fit into the cliquey nature of secondary school as I didn’t really share many of the more “mainstream” interests in sport, nor did I find socialising with my peers at an all-boys school particularly easy because I didn’t share those core, keystone interests that boys bond over. For some reason, then and now, boys who don’t seek the pleasures of sport – or the opposite sex – aren’t seen as “normal” boys.

Is this because of a predilection to assume masculinity in this country (and perhaps the Western world generally) does not promote intellectual prowess as a key trait? Perhaps it keys back to prehistoric times where physical strength was valued as a survival trait?

Both of those questions are a little beyond the scope of this post but both pose interesting questions about how boys are raised in this country, on a societal level. Maybe World Book Day is seen as a more “childish” thing, so reading in general is lumped in with that?

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

But getting back to the point of reading, I feel that there are very few male role models in Western society that seem to champion the power of thought. Most boys have sporting icons as heroes and the few that seemed to exist (the Doctor from Doctor Who, prior to 2018 at least) seem to have largely fallen by the wayside.

Therefore, I understand the mindset of those that cruelly tormented Callum for his love of reading, but pity it immensely. As an adolescent myself I recall I had to be very select about who I shared my “esoteric” interests – history, computer games that weren’t the usual “boys” staple, like The Sims and SimCity, and books – and it’s this that likely made me the very private person I am today. It’s something I’m attempting to shed as a characteristic in my 30s now because I’ve stopped caring, frankly.

That said I think this perceived anti-intellectualism that pervades society to look strangely at readers continues. When I joined Facebook in 2008, a disappointing number of people listed things like “I don’t read” in their favourite books section. Even now, researching this post, 78,000 people have this on their page as of 2020. It’s sad and heart-breaking because it’s such a missed opportunity.

I also apportion some of the blame for this sentiment to mass media – shows like Love Island, Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex are harmful as they actively promote a “it’s cool to be stupid” air to them. It’s a race to the bottom, and society seems to be dumbing down.

Even back in my more formative years, shows like Big Brother catapulted people such as Jade Goody to public consciousness. While what happened to Jade at the end of her life was awful and not something I’d ever wish on someone, was Jade quite the person to be front and centre of British society like she was? I was sceptical at the time and remain so.

Image result for love island logo

Of course, I don’t propose we bring up kids on a diet of Radio 4, classical music and Tolstoy. These shows, the most egregious I think being Love Island, actively promote this apparent “bimbo” culture – if you have a “hot bod”, it doesn’t matter that you know nothing. You will succeed on no discernible “talent”, but on how marketable your image is. Indeed, there’s already some consternation about the hidden toxicity of the show right now.

It’s a superficial culture that seems to actively promote a lack of thought, a shallowness that I find, personally, distasteful. While I would never begrudge these people their “trash TV”, I do find its prevalence in a race-to-the-bottom worrying. And as we’ve seen with Love Island recently, the brightest candles burn shortest.

But let’s get back to the more positive nature of World Book Day. I think it’s wonderful to see so many kids celebrating their love of stories. I think reading is a magical activity – you stare at ink on a dead tree and imagine things. It’s totally engrossing and I’m so glad my own reading has taken up this year, I am very much enjoying it.  More and more people should take the time, challenge themselves to a book and they’d realise too what an engrossing and amazing experience getting lost in a good (or bad) story can be!

Review: The Passengers (Paperback)

The_PassengersOne of the most successful things about The Passengers harkened back to my university days. I recall my lecturer, when discussing effective sci-fi, talked about extrapolating something from the current world into some extreme, and taking the story from there. It’s an approach I find a lot more rewarding than the usual galaxies and asteroids that science fiction is usually, inaccurately, ascribed to.

The Passengers extrapolates a multitude of prescient ideas from 21st century society that make for an engaging, believable and thrilling adventure. It’s a decent mix of ideas also, that may sound disparate but do gel together for a thrilling yarn.

Firstly, the idea of the driverless car – after over a century of innovation with automobiles, finally the human element is dispensed with. This is a technology that’s still in the ascendancy today, but taking strides ever closer to what is predicted in The Passengers. Indeed, one of the backstory threads – that all non-driverless cars have ultimately been outlawed – deals with one of the main teething issues experienced at the cutting edge of this technology – interaction with other cars, and the unpredictability of their human operators.

By removing this unpredictable element of human interaction, driverless cars are portrayed as the holy grail to an efficient personal transport system, largely devoid of the chaos and disorder that comes from having a human behind the wheel. The machinery and artificial intelligence simply runs to a set of rules, though an interesting twist that comes about toward the mid to latter stages of the book is quite what those rules are.

Of course, a decent sci-fi thriller takes an ordinary idea and asks one question: what if…? In The Passengers, this question is posed to be what if the driverless cars that have no manual override get hacked? We begin by following a group of seemingly-normal citizens from a cross-section of society getting in their cars, as Passengers, from therein the fun begins.

But the second societal notion that The Passengers plays with is social media and the mob mentality. Invariably, the “unhackable” cars are hacked, and the fate of the occupants is decided not just by the characters we interact directly with, but by a more intangible influence, that of social media. When lives are at stake, this quickly develops into a full-throated trial by social media with life and death at the hands of tweeters we never meet on an individual level but who only seem to exist as shifting masses, who prove feckless and fickle in the face of the evidence presented to them

This is all good stuff to chew on. But who do we meet as our cast of characters?

The main setting for The Passengers is the members of a supposedly-independent inquest into accidents regarding driverless vehicles, ostensibly to apportion blame. Our protagonist is Libby, a bog-standard everyman hero at first glance, introduced as the “token citizen” in the inquest. She’s forthright, fights for justice… all the characteristics you might expect. Indeed, her characterisation is a little thin, almost bordering on the trite; however the book acknowledges this toward the latter stages when we discover quite why Libby is even in the inquest.

We also have MP Jack Larsson, the antithesis to Libby’s good character – a shady, snide worst-of-the-worst politician, almost a caricature. And the mysterious Hacker, for most of the book an ominous (if slightly cliched) vocal presence throughout proceedings. We’re left to wonder what the Hacker’s motivations are – their initial opening is that they’ve taken control of the eight cars because they can, without making any demands. But this soon evolves into a sick game of life and death, with the participants of the inquest having to decide which occupants to sacrifice for the greater good, according to the rules of the game the Hacker decides to play.

On a conceptual and moral level The Passengers is a fascinating and gripping glance twenty minutes into our future – where autonomous cars are played in a sick game of trial-by-social-media, the purpose of which only becomes clear toward the very end of the novel. This collision of some thought-provoking, prescient social issues – driverless cars, social media power, even the art of spin and how facts are presented – in 2019 gels together well; considerably better than perhaps it might seem.

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some of the weak points of the narrative and prose that are there – for me they weren’t inherent negatives to my enjoyment of the book. Firstly, the characterisation of the people through which the story primarily takes place through is fairly perfunctory – the characters exist for reasons that the plot needs them to, and we don’t learn a great deal about their personalities beyond tropes. This is fine – indeed, this shares a characteristic, that of the characters existing to help the plot, from one of my favourite technothrillers, Jurassic Park. The Passengers is refreshingly unliterary and plot-centric which results in a pacey, thrilling story that keeps delivering.

However I do feel that the narrative could’ve left the inquest room as a viewpoint more throughout the main thread of the hacked driverless cars – too often the societal impacts of the fast-paced change are merely reported as “thousands of Tweets” or a news report of “massed people”. It felt disconnected and a little subdued -I’d much rather be shown these events rather than be told about them by the social media advisor. But the main meat of the plot takes place over a couple of hours of narrative time so I understand if there’s simply not the space in the briskness of the plot to exit the room containing all the characters we experience the story through – who, conveniently, cannot leave – to adequately build alternate perspectives.

That said, despite a couple of glaring errors (why would Level 5 driverless cars have no manual override to stop the engine at all?) I thoroughly enjoyed The Passengers; to the point where the potential weaknesses were there but ultimately became unimportant in my enjoyment. There’s a great, brisk plot that delivers in spades – a sprinkling of social commentary packaged in an engaging, pacey wrapper – a great, engaging read that makes you think (not too much), and is written in an easy, breezy and slick prose that I really dug quite well. This was another random Waterstones table find that caught my eye – fair to say I’ll be seeking out more of John Marrs’ work on the back of it!

Book Thoughts: Abandoning eInk for Real Ink

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

In 2011 I got my first and so far only Kindle – a grey Kindle 4 – and it revolutionised how I read. And now it sits begotten and forlorn on my shelf in its battered folio case, surrounded by paperbacks.

Honestly even thinking about this makes me realise how irrational this is. But front and centre I’ll admit now that I am re-converting back to paperbacks, to the degree even that I’m seriously planning to rebuy the books I have on Kindle as physical dead trees.

It’s mad isn’t it?!

Now don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is a fantastic piece of kit, and my Kindle is one of the rare pieces of technology I own that I truly love unconditionally. The eInk display is pretty much paper-like, without the glare of a backlit LCD that is objectively bad for your eyes. Indeed, the eInk is legitimately better paper than paper – features such as dynamic text size, font choice, and even context info and inline dictionary definitions for those tricky words make it objectively more capable than paper.

books on wooden shelves inside library

A Kindle can contain hundreds of books and not weigh the same as a small car. The battery lasts forever – even on my ancient Kindle 4. It fits in a bag very easily and  the latest Paperwhite versions can even be read in the dark. But the Kindle remains a technological item in that it does run out of battery, it is reliant on WiFi and these niggles can break the experience of reading that a paperback – or other physical book – simply doesn’t need to worry about.

black and white bed stripes kindle

Largely I’ve found that Kindle books aren’t that much of a saving on traditional paperbacks, so the cost savings are modest. Taking into account, as of time of writing, three popular books sourced from the Top 50 Fiction on amazon.co.uk:

  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood – Kindle £9.99; Hardback £10 Saving: 0.1%
  • The Holiday by TM Logan – Kindle £2.60; Paperback £6.60 Saving 87%
  • Echo Burning by Lee Child – Kindle £1.99; Paperback £7.99 Saving 75%

I’ve also drilled down into the Top 100 Sci-Fi Fiction:

  • Artemis by Andy Weir – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £8.96 Saving 45%
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – Kindle £5.99; Paperback £6.87 Saving 13%

AmazonSept19Kindle

Already it could be said that the potential savings are considerable with a few exceptions; surely savings upward of 33% could be worth the downfalls of the format that I’ll touch on soon. It’s important also to note that there’s a few important caveats on that quick comparison: quite a few of the paperbacks are not discounted; the Kindle editions quite frequently are, heavily so. I’ve been able to find a great deal of mainstream chart books, for instance, the Lee Child Jack Reacher novels, significantly cheaper in physical format outside of traditional bookshops (think: supermarkets). This phenomenon was reflected in a couple of examples that I located of high-profile books being cheaper in paperback than Kindle, or more commonly, where the saving on Kindle was not significant:

  • Killing Floor by Jack Reacher – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £4.50 Expense 10%
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £5.99 Saving 17%

Of course it would be facile of me to disregard totally the trend for ebooks to be cheaper; it’s not a hard and fast rule, but a general trend, and it depends totally upon publisher and offer time. And those savings come at a price nonetheless, it just may not be monetary.

One of the things I’ve found refreshing about my own personal paperback renaissance is the sense that I am owning my books. With Kindle and other ebook platforms, you simply own a licence to access the content via the vendor in question’s storefront or platform – and your books are only readable on that specific platform due to DRM (though there’s millions of free ebook files to be found). Amazon’s infamous instance of remotely deleting 1984 from people’s Kindles is a tart example of the fallacy in this model, arguably. And indeed, what happens if the obscure format becomes unsupported?

And there’s something wholesome and comforting about perusing the shelves of a bookshop and taking punts on recommendations left by the staff, who all love reading themselves. Indeed, some of my favourite reads recently have been ones I’ve taken a punt on after spying a book in a bookshop – Feed by Mira Grant and The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh are two notable recent ones I thoroughly enjoyed.

The fuzziest reason I’ve gone back to physical books is the sheer experience. The feeling, the smell and the sensation of looking at a dead tree with some ink and hallucinating is really rather magical. Quite often when I do use my Kindle these days I have to think if I remembered to charge it recently, whether it was still connected to my WiFi, or whether I’d sent the document I wanted to read on it… with a paperback book I’ve found there’s none of those considerations – one just sits down and opens the book. While over time I have adjusted to a largely digital world and workflow – lord knows, I’d love a typewriter, for romantic reasons; my productivity would crater however – there’s something about the simplicity that comes from an analogue experience that just flows better for me. Again it’s fuzzy, sentimental reasoning, and I have no grudge or ill will towards those who live for their eReaders, but reading should always be a comfortable, personal experience and these days I’m content to bury my head in a well-presented paperback.

But the whole precis of this discussion is that I simply don’t much enjoy the Kindle experience, and that’s a shame – as I recognise the benefits of the Kindle: features like X-ray, the ability to store hundreds, even thousands of books, adjustable text size, font and margins… but it just comes across as a little soulless. So much so that I’m honestly deciding whether to start re-buying my Kindle purchases as paperbacks, a process I’ve already started with the likes of The Fog by James Herbert and One by Conrad Williams. But also series I want to rediscover – I recall reading a fair number of the Lincoln Rhyme books by Jeffrey Deaver and in a weird way they seem less accessible on my Kindle!

I’d be interested to see what people think in the comments! Get to it!

Stock photos by by Caio Resende and Stanislav Kondratiev on Pexels.com; Waterstones Piccadilly (London) from Havwoods.co.uk

Amazon prices correct as of 14th September 2019

Review: Dogs of War (Paperback)

Dogs_of_WarMaybe I’m just not a dog person.

I picked up Dogs of War recently as a charity shop purchase – I was wary on buying it as I didn’t have a great experience with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time at all. However, it was an inexpensive purchase and the premise of the book seemed intriguing, so I was happy to exchange some coins for it.

A book about biologically augmented dogs (and other creatures, but more on that later) being used in a dystopian near-future to fight humanity’s wars has the potential to be really quite gripping. And indeed, the opening parts to Dogs of War are quite effective as we follow bioform Rex and his cadre of augmented animals as they are used in a war in Campeche, Mexico against the Anarchista rebellion. This purpose is ostensibly that but the conflict quickly becomes the private war of the commander, Murray, who utilises the bioforms to commit a variety of quite brutal war crimes as he is left unchecked. Indeed, any attempt to interfere or provide oversight is met with hostility.

Had Dogs of War stayed in Campeche it would have been a very gripping, atmospheric and gritty book that explored the horrors of humans using augmented animals to fight wars that human soldiers aren’t to be “wasted” on. And indeed there’s plenty of ethical strife for Rex as his augmented intelligence clashes with his literal programming – he obeys his Master – Murray – because he craves the euphoria released by his feedback chip from being a Good Dog; likewise the fear of being a Bad Dog is tantamount in his mind, and there’s plenty of mileage in exploring what happens when Rex is unshackled from that hierarchy and has to make his own decisions.

However only the first quarter of the book takes place in the Mexican battlefield and this is where I feel Dogs of War quickly unravels.

The book pivots to be a political procedural of sorts that focuses on using Rex as a means to bringing Murray to justice and a more wider ethical exploration as to whether the bioforms are things (which can be destroyed) or sentient beings which deserve their own right to coexist alongside humanity.

Even writing that synopsis made me realise that the idea itself isn’t bad; however it is a quite trite and tired narrative thread. And once Dogs of War leaves the gritty battlefield of Mexico and expands to the civilian life of the bioforms – focussing on Rex as he battles with his new-found freedom from his hierarchies – the narrative completely seems to vent of momentum. Rex’s journey seemed immaterial as I felt he was a tool – a thing, if you will – for exploring thematic ideas rather than a solid plot.

To compound the triteness there’s a scene where Rex crumbles when questioned in court when presented with Murray, and the trial of his former Master collapses. I quickly began to be irritated by the stunting of Rex’s character.

There’s parallel narratives, much like Children of Time and the Rex chapters quickly started to bore me, honestly. Rex’s character hasn’t much depth – indeed, underneath the augmentations he’s just a dog, and the battle against his Good Dog/Bad Dog mentality, even when it no longer has any material basis on his actions. Honestly, Rex’s simplistic point-of-view doesn’t do the action portrayed any justice – it’s the narrative style given to Rex’s point-of-view that sells the story short. His perspective and recollection of events is so insulated from the brutal reality that the situations aren’t done justice.

Rex’s point-of-view seems more like a report or log of what happened rather than narrative with any sense of character and the prose of those chapters is too clinical and disconnected to be effective, ultimately. The prose’s insulation from the action it describes bleeds it very quickly of any impact and it becomes a hybrid of a report after-the-fact to a simple running commentary. It’s very tell-y; and the maxim that the author should show, not tell seems to have been purposefully ignored.

I am suddenly much happier. I am moving on all fours, working out where to take cover. Bees is mustering her units. Dragon wakes up and slithers into a stand of trees from where he can get a good shot.

All the not-enemy humans are still running. Some of them will still be in the way. The vehicles are coming very quickly. Already the enemy are shooting. They are only hitting other humans, though: they cannot aim at this range when they are moving.

Honey’s Elephant Gun explodes the lead vehicle. She is pushing through the not-enemy, and I tell her she should stay back to use them as cover.

Dogs of War, Chapter 6, page 47

I feel Dogs of War fails because it’s cramming too many thematic and ethical ponderances into a short book. The final fifth of the book was a race to the finish, ultimately, and I found myself caring less and less for Rex’s point of view. Indeed it was only toward the latter stages of the book that I learned that Rex’s fellow bioforms are not all dogs – he is accompanied by Honey, a bear, Dragon, whose species I never quite nailed down and more ponderously Bees, a literal hivemind of augmented bees that just doesn’t get the weight of attention that such a concept deserves.

Indeed, the character of this group of animals is expressed solely, it seems through the “telepathic texting” that was solely expressed through Rex’s point-of-view chapters. I didn’t quite understand this – were they communicating through aforementioned telepathic texting in real time? How did that work? This confusion just added to the sense of deep disconnect from the characters that Rex’s chapters were.

Ultimately I think Dogs of War worked less as a novel but more as a bit of an indulgence of the author’s desire to explore this well-trodden path of the ethics of utilising augmented animals and determining where the difference between beings and things seems to lie. But more fatally I didn’t come out of it convinced – the plot was ultimately predictable in its denouncement of humanity’s instinct to use its ingenuity to figure out a both more “acceptable”, marketable way of dealing with human problems that remains totally inhumane.

Humanity comes out the bad guy here and unfortunately the limited narrative in Dogs of War just can’t sustain that. Ultimately the themes that drive Dogs of War prove to be an old dog, and there’s no new tricks on show here to speak of.

In Children of Time the narrative enters a stall in the midsection of the book from which it was unable to recover; in Dogs of War the thematic weight behind the narrative forces it out through a puncture in the constraints that kept it taught and once it escapes into atmosphere, it quickly dissipates into nothingness.