Book The Fifty-Eighth

Samurai Girl by Carrie Asai

That’s it: the next time I read any young adult fiction, I’m going to kick a kitten to death. Do you want that to happen? DO YOU?!

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Book The Fifty-Seventh

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

A group of disparate individuals all go about their business at random. Or do they?

This is That Other Book that Douglas Adams wrote. It is certainly less user-friendly than ‘Hitch-hiker’s’, so I can understand why it doesn’t occupy such an important place in popular culture, but it’s still very entertaining and worth reading.

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Book The Fifty-Sixth

The Pluto Files by Neil Degrasse Tyson

The history of Pluto’s rise to, and fall from, planet status, as told by one of the most influential figures in the debate, my favourite astrophysicist, Neil Degrasee Tyson.

This book is incredibly informative, and Tyson’s humour shines throughout it. I won’t blather on about it, but here is a bunch of Tyson’s appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Watch them, and you will understand why you should read this book.

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Book The Fifty-Fifth

Venus in Furs by Leopold von-Sacher Masoch

The seminal work from the man who gave his name to the practice of masochism.

I remember discussing this idea with a friend of mine who had a bit more experience in that area than I did. (I don’t like pain: it hurts.) She told me that, really, it’s the subs that have a lot of the power. I sort of get that after reading this: Severin is a needy figure, but his need is arguably domineering in the way that he forces Wanda to enslave and whip him.

Actually, more than a how-to guide for pain-as-aphrodisiac, this is a good primer about listening to ones partner. Severin’s problems are all basically that he didn’t pay attention to Wanda’s needs.

Either way, not a bad wee book.

And here is Tom Lehrer with a song that is appropriate to it all.

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Book The Fifty-Fourth

Straw Dogs, by John Grey

One of the things I hated seeing in my years in the church, and that I don’t like seeing in my children, is when people who label themselves as staunch, faith-filled Christians find out what’s actually in the Bible. Not letting women have authority over men; not getting tattoos; mandatory headscarves – you know the sort of thing. It always leads to an uncomfortable few moments where they have to make a decision about whether to confront the unpleasant truths about their worldview or to ignore it and go about their lives. Usually, they chose the easy option.

So, anyway, one of my pointless affectations is to call myself a nihilist. I find it the easiest answer when the students ask me about my beliefs – especially given that they never know what I mean, which is good for two reasons: 1) They’ll accept me at my word even though it’s not entirely the best definition of what I am, and 2) igmorence means that none of the faith-filled children will take offense, so I won’t be in the position of a friend who was summoned to the Principal’s office and reprimanded for the emotional abuse of a student that was admitting she wasn’t a Catholic. In short: as definitions go, it’ll do.

Straw Dogs made me confront the idea of nihilism.

Gray genuinely believes that there is no point to life and absolutely no hope of any sort, and in a series of pithy, wide-ranging micro-chapters, goes through pretty much every aspect of religion, humanism, philosophy or basic human nature, and systematically insults its mother.

And it really is like that: rather than offer reasoned, well-thought-out critiques of these ideas, he basically, runs up to them, shouts “Your Mum!” at them, and runs away. He is a veritable Rick Giles of philosophy.

Reading this book was sort of analogous to being tied to a chair while Gray punched you repeatedly in the crotch for being stupid. I could almost hear the conversation as I read:

“Do you believe in any form of higher power?”

“I guess I’m open to the idea of…”

“BAM! Right in the nuts! Did you like that? Because it’s what you get for believing in anything. Do you believe in the scientific progress of mankind?”

“Well, there have been great advances made in the fields of…”

“BAM! Another one to the crotch! You’d think you’d learn by now! Do you believe in Gaia theory?”

“No! No I don’t!”

“BAM! Ha! Straight to your nuts! That’s what you get for not believing in the Gaia Theory!”

“But wait… You said… Make up your mind!”

“BAM!”

I did like this book: it was very easy to read – which is no small feat for something that is directly referencing most of the highest level thought in human history; Gray has a nice turn of phrase; the ideas are thought-provoking. But for all that, as the book went on, I got the sense that rather than cleverly and methodically refuting all of the ideas he is against, Gray was just sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting that he couldn’t hear them…

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Book The Fifty-Third

The Levels by Sean Cregan

Okay, so a few years back, Warren Ellis started writing a series called Fell chronicling the awful life of a police detective in the decaying urban sprawl known as Snowtown.

The Levels is, without a doubt, the finest Fell fanfiction I have ever read.

The titular Levels, Cregan’s decaying urban sprawl, is Snowtown in everything except name: It has a near-shamanic “L” tag done by denizens like the “S” tag of Ellis’ world; each has the bizarre lurker (Richard Fell is harassed by a nun in a Nixon mask, Nathan Turner is creeped out by a clown in an SS uniform); both locales have feral packs of domesticated breeds of dogs; the Beast – the serial killer haunting the Levels – was infected with a pathogen when he and some fellow chancers tried to steal from a government facility, which is, word-for-word, the story from an early issue of Fell.

Which is a pity, given that I really liked this book. Sure, the dialogue is wholly unrealistic, but it’s snappy and funny and fun to read. Sure the characters are all stereotypes and have ridiculously implausible reasons for interacting with each other, but really they’re just ciphers to show us the horror of the Levels, and the story rollicks along at a fine pace.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but there were too many times when the flow of reading was interrupted by the mental judder-bars of noticing the (let’s be kind and call them) homages to Fell – mostly stylistic, but often more overt (such as when the bad guys were revealed to be holing up in the abandoned Fellman Elementary School). I’m going to keep an eye out for Cregan’s next work: when he actually writes a story of his own, I’m pretty sure it will be worth reading.

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Book The Fifty-Second

Zombie by Various

Short fiction about the Cadillac of horror genres, the zombie. All chosen to be slightly non-traditional takes on the shambling undead, by-and-large the stories deliver as promised. (Even if they slightly stretch the interpretation of zombie story to do so: Joe R Landsdale’s otherwise brilliant ‘Shooting Pool’ ended without a single brain eaten before I realised that the take on being-haunted-by-the-dead in this story was the guilt over having witnessed a death. Which is all very noble, but I’m fairly low class, so when I buy a book of zombie stories, I want dismemberment on every page, dammit!)

I was familiar with many of the authors in this anthology, and they all presented pretty typical examples of their work: Stephen Bissette’s ‘Copper’ was an interesting take on the genre that would have fit in with early Vertigo comics (or even earlier EC works); Mike Carey’s ‘Second Wind’ was a solidly entertaining if not world-shaking parable of yuppie greed; Max Brooks (the father of modern zombie prose) provided a story from his World War Z milieu; David Wellington’s ‘Weaponised’ was a typically interesting and fresh idea about zombies, which I’m pleased to say wasn’t bogged down by the problems that beset his ‘Monster’ trilogy; and Joe Hill’s superb ‘Twittering from the circus of the dead’ rounds out the anthology on a high note. For my money, it is the best story in the book, and probably the best zombie thing I’ve read in a long time.

Of the writers with whom I was less familiar, the one who stood out from the rest was Aimee Bender, whose work I’ll be keeping an eye out for, as her story ‘Among Us’ made a real impact.

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