Iain Banks – farewell

It was only recently that I wrote about hearing the news that Iain Banks was (very) ill, then yesterday heard the news that he’d passed away.


He was an enormous influence on my reading from the late 80’s and early 90’s. A new book by Banks (M. or not) was always an event, and something to be anticipated, savoured and enjoyed. His books have long been a staple foundation of my bookshelves, often in multiple copies as they fall victim to much re-reading and passing around.

There was an outpouring of grief and condolences on my twitter feed yesterday (though, interestingly, virtually nothing on FB – Twitter, you have exceptional taste).

Lots of people wrote lovely things about Iain – Nick Harkaway’s “So long, IMB, I never knew ye” and Neil Gaiman’s “Iain Banks. With or without the M.” being the first of many which come to mind.

There’s also a truly fantastic collection of quotes on GoodReads from Iain and from his books. If you’ve never read any of his stuff, start there. Find a quote you like, then go buy the  book. Or, if you’re already a fan, buy a book for someone who’s never read any of his work. As Neil himself puts it:

Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing.

Me? I can only echo what everyone else has already said, in many other places, and far better than I am able.

Farewell, Iain. Here’s to you and your stories.

book review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pretty good, though the style of the story, told as interviews of survivors of the zombie war meant that there wasn’t a lot of tension. You knew that the war was over, and that these people had survived to tell the tale. That said, it was really interesting to see so many distinct character voices come out, and the stories they told were often fairly gruesome. Not usually a fan of horror stories, or zombie stuff, but quite enjoyed this.

View all my reviews

my first job

Old Books in the library
Old Books in the library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Inspired by Rachel at Courtyard Lullaby’s and Beth at plasticrosaries.com’s My First Job blogposts for the #BEDM series.

I was pretty lucky, in that my first job was the job I’d always wanted. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I’d always loved books, so naturally I wanted to work in a library.

Cue work experience week towards the end of my school career. I was offered a placement at Fenham Library, in Newcastle. General stuff – filing the book returns away, processing new books, writing out index cards and so on.

Hey, this was back in the 80’s. We still had a physical card index system (probably where I got my love of 5×3 index cards from) and the libraries were moving from the old Brown ticket system (paper ticket in a book, pulled out and slotted into your little cardboard library tickets when the book was issued) over to a new computer-based system of barcodes and pen scanners.

I loved it. Everything. The books, the people, the satisfying ‘kachunk’ of the date stamp on the books, the books… You get the idea.

At the end of the placement I tentatively asked the librarian in charge if there was any possibility of a saturday job. Luckily she said yes, and my library career began.

I worked Saturdays to start, then school holidays. I’d work any shifts that needed working, and they soon realised that if they were stuck for staff, odds were that I’d be more than happy to come and work. Partially the money, but partially the place and mostly the people. And the books.

Have I mentioned that I love books?

Oh, and there were some wonderful characters – the Mills & Boon brigade who’d turn up regular as clockwork to sign up for the latest bodice-rippers. The Catherine Cookson gang (and boy, did we go through a *lot* of Catherine Cookson books). The teenagers who’d lurk in, not doing their homework. The old guys who’d rock up at 9am on a Saturday morning, only to promptly fall asleep and have to be woken so we could close for lunch. I was fairly unique in that I was one of the few men in a largely female library staff, so quickly became aware that everyone knew me!

And the tales I could tell. The interesting bookmarks we found, including on one memorable occasion, a perfectly cooked slice of streaky bacon.

I kid you not.

Bookmarks weren’t the only things we found. One book on fishing was found to contain, in very small, precise handwriting, a reader’s opinion on the author’s approach to the subject. It would seem that the reader (and that’s what we called the library patrons – not customers as I’m sure they do now) had taken umbrage with more or less the entire book, and had felt strongly enough to write a quite vitriolic diatribe putting forth his opinion.

In pencil.

Guess whose job it was to rub it all out?

I ended up working in various places across the public library system in Newcastle. One day I found myself in Byker Library, which was utterly surreal. It was *exactly* the same building as my home base at Fenham, but with half the number of books and shelves. I probably worked in a dozen libraries around the city and met a huge cross-section of the library-visiting public. Some libraries were very lovely modern buildings, some were in pretty deprived areas of the city.

All full of stories, in every sense of the word. The library cats in Jesmond, playing a feline version of chess, or snoozing on the shelves amongst the books. The bullet-hole in the library window at Cruddas Park (to go with the used nappy found tucked behind the books – seriously, just ask. We’d be quite happy to find a bin for you). The quite excellent chippies we’d find for lunch breaks. The gossip. Oh, so much gossip…

I got a real kick out of meeting and helping the people. They’d come in having just finished their allotment of books, and sometimes wanted our opinion on what they might read next.

“Ah, if you liked that, then you’ve *got* to try this one. I saved it for you.”

Happy days. You’d get the odd ones too – people who just wanted someone to talk to. One lady in particular would appear regular as clockwork on a saturday afternoon. Jennifer, her name was. Mad as a box of frogs. You could always tell when she was coming in as you’d turn around and wonder where all your colleagues had gone. She’d have some wonderful tall tales of being whisked off by an Arabian Sheik in his Rolls, or that the police helicopters were really spying on her.

Part of me wished that she’d turn up one day, this tiny little old lady with her milk-bottle specs, slightly worn perm and grubby overcoat with a tall, handsome sheik on one arm, irrepressible grin on her face and introduce us to her fiance.

Sadly it never happened. Maybe he whisked her off to his palace in the sands where she was fed peeled grapes by her true love…

I’d always intended to go to university to study librarianship, but one of the subject librarians at Fenham advised me study something else first, then consider a post-grad. Better pay, and a subject to fall back on should I change my mind.

I ended up at Leeds for 3 years doing various interesting things (another future blog post, no doubt), followed by a year working for the University Library, then a year doing a postgrad in information studies, which led in turn to a career as a law librarian.

But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

What was your first job, dear reader?

James Bond – Solo

Bond Solo

The title of William Boyd’s new Bond novel was announced today.

The new mission.
1969. A veteran secret agent. A single mission. A licence to kill.
James Bond returns.

The last couple of Bond novels have been a bit lukewarm for me, but the idea of Bond going on a solo mission strikes me as an interesting idea.

What do you think? Have you read any of the new (or indeed original) Bond stories?


Iain Banks

Horrible news about Iain (M.) Banks yesterday. In his words:

I am officially Very Poorly.
After a couple of surgical procedures, I am gradually recovering from jaundice caused by a blocked bile duct, but that – it turns out – is the least of my problems.

I first encountered Iain’s work in his sci-fi ‘M.’ persona[1] when I picked up a copy of Consider Phlebas in a tiny bookshop opposite Leeds University in 1989. I fell in love with his writing immediately – high concept space opera of the finest kind, with changelings, absurdly intelligent giant spaceships with utterly wonderful names, and brilliant characters doing horrible things to each other. As I was a little late to the party I quickly acquired The Player of Games and Use of Weapons, the latter of which is one of my all-time favourite books.
I discovered that he also wrote more mainstream (if that’s the right word) novels, and was introduced to The Wasp Factory.

If you haven’t read it, go and get hold of a copy immediately. Be warned, it’s dark. And funny. And horrible. And brilliant. I saw a stage production of it many years ago, and there are still bits of it which I can’t get out of my head.

I’ve been a keen follower of his work ever since. Mostly I prefer his science fiction Culture[2] books, but all of his books are beautifully written and linger in the mind for long after the final page.

His Culture books are renowned for the superbly-named ships which form such a large part of the fabric of the society. You’ve got the CGU Just Read The Instructions, the GSV Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence, the dROU Frank Exchange of Views, the GCU Poke It With A Stick… the list goes on. Go have a look at the list of ship names.

My favourites, then. In no particular order
Use of Weapons
Against a Dark Background (not a Culture book, but still utterly brilliant)

and for the non-sci-fi buffs
The Crow Road, Complicity and, of course, The Wasp Factory.

The Crow Road has the best opening line of a book, ever.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

which is pure Banks – full of dark humour.

I’d also highly recommend Raw Spirit, a travelogue odyssey about whisky and finding the perfect dram, with meanderings and musings on Scotland’s ‘Great Wee Roads’ and his love of driving on them. I’m not really a whisky fan, but Banks’ sheer enthusiasm on the subject made a convert of me.

Go, check out his books, and raise a glass to him.

[1] Iain has two writing personas – Iain M. Banks for his science fiction, and Iain Banks for his more mainstream work
[2]The Culture

the Culture, a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia consisting of various humanoid races and managed by very advanced artificial intelligences

Zoo City

An excellent review of Lauren Beukes‘ excellent novel Zoo City, one of my favourite books of recent years. Highly recommended. Don’t take my word for it, have a read of the review, go pick yourself up a copy and thank us later.
Oh, and while you’re at it, pre-order Lauren’s new book The Shining Girls too. It’s brilliant.

Pechorin's Journal

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

The Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature is one of the very few literary prizes I pay any attention to. In part that’s because I don’t read enough science fiction to otherwise be on top of what’s coming out, but it’s also because it’s a well curated prize that really does tend to catch much of what’s most exciting in the field.

Lauren Beukes’ second novel, Zoo City, won the prize back in 2011. That caused some controversy, with many arguing that it wasn’t science fiction at all but rather a fantasy novel which shouldn’t even have been shortlisted (hardcore genre fans can get very bullish about defending genre boundaries). For me the better view is that the boundaries aren’t the point. The point is that the Clarke Award did its job, by finding a bloody good book and shouting to the world…

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books in 2013: progress report

A short catch-up of the plan to read the Great Unread Book Pile. I’m eight books into 2013, and there have been some cracking reads in there. I’ve still got to write up full reviews for each, but Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (@Beukes) in particular were absolutely brilliant.

I’ve kind of wavered from the TBR pile a little – I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of The Shining Girls from the lovely Hannah and Kate at HarperCollins (@KillerReads) which promptly bustled all other books out of the way and was devoured over the course of a weekend. Glorious stuff, time travelling serial killers and a girl who didn’t die. It’s out soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

Angelmaker has also gone and won The Red Tentacle Award for best novel at The Kitschies. Congratulations to Nick on both the award, and his epic suit.

Similarly ARCs of The Teleportation Accident, London Falling and Fade to Black also appeared. The first was so-so, with some lovely characters (well, brilliantly described and written characters), but doing… well, nothing that I could work out. Meh.

London Falling, on the other hand, was superb. A darker, nastier take on the magical London scene, kind of a grittier Whispers of London. Can’t wait for the sequel.

I finished Fade to Black yesterday. It was pretty good – interesting characters doing interesting things in a world that I’d not come across before. Again, there’s a sequel on the way and I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve had a couple of other recommendations to investigate, but am (at the moment) being good and attacking the TBR pile once more.

Read so far in 2013:
The Right Way to Do Wrong, by Harry Houdini
The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman
Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar, by David Millar
Railsea, by China Mieville
London Falling, by Paul Cornell
Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway
Fade to Black (Rojan Dizon Novels), by Francis Knight
Currently reading:
From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming (part of my eternally late BlogalongaBondathon)


So, dear reader. What books have you read and enjoyed lately?