Books 10 to 14

My book-reading pace has picked up again since last time.

10. The Lady in the Lake – Raymond Chandler

The fourth Philip Marlowe novel is the most enjoyable I’ve read to date, with an iconic plot which is just predictable enough. Previous books in the series tended towards a picaresque series of entertaining incidents followed by a catastrophic revelation which re-cast those incidents in a new — not always plausible — light. In contrast, The Lady in the Lake is structured so that our understanding of events cumulatively deepens, which makes for a much more satisfying experience. While there are fewer snappy similes, Chandler’s prose is richer and more varied, and Marlowe is every bit his usual world-weary and laconic self. I’ve only three more of these to go, so I’m spacing them out.

11. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins

Dedicated to Douglas Adams (‘Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’) this is a hugely readable book that explains complex ideas in accessible, even chatty, prose. Dawkins does tend to digress onto side-topics, especially in the earlier portion of the book, but overall this is an admirable dissection of, and rebuttal to, the need for religion in its myriad forms. He delves into theology, philosophy, geology, cosmology and biology in order to respond to the arguments commonly advanced in favour of religion.

Dawkins is particularly strong in explaining poorly-understood aspects of science that may at first glance seem counter-intuitive, and in making explicit the unspoken assumptions about religion in society — something he refers to as “consciousness-raising” by reference to feminism, noting “When I was young, it never occurred to me that women may feel slighted by a phrase like ‘the future of man’. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised.” Extending this principle to how children become indoctrinated by their parents he cites a newspaper photo of school-children captioned: “‘Shadbreet (a Sikh), Musharaff (a Muslim) and Adele (a Christian), all aged four'” and invites us to imagine how we would feel about an identical photograph captioned: “‘Shadbreet (a Keynesian), Musharaff (a Monetarist) and Adele (a Marxist), all aged four.'”

As someone who continues to struggle with the feeling that I’ll somehow cause offence by declaring myself to be an atheist, a lot of the observations ring very true; in particular the way that religious belief is accorded not just the normal respect for the opinions of others but a disproportionate protection in our society (for example, uniquely, it’s possible to use religious belief as a legal defence for homophobia). In fact I expected the book to be quite confrontational, but Dawkins goes to some lengths to defuse this perception, taking the time to examine and justify his use of the word “delusion” and noting that “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else”.

(Frustratingly, most of the responses I’ve seen to this book seem to be disingenuous: cherry picking a couple of statements out of context, and then simply re-stating the very fallacies which Dawkins has taken great care to respond to, without acknowledging or addressing the substance of his rebuttal).

12. Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins

I’d never read any Dawkins previously but I enjoyed The God Delusion so much I progressed straight onto Climbing Mount Improbable. This one, based partly on his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, is back on his core territory of evolutionary biology. The titular metaphor of “Mount Improbable” is that creationism or Intelligent Design views living things as sitting at the top of an insurmountable cliff to be scaled in a single leap, whereas in fact there’s a gradual slope around the back. He takes the time to explicitly address some common fallacies about evolution, particularly the fairly huge misconception that Natural Selection is the same as blind chance. He explains clearly and intelligibly the gradual evolution of key examples often cited as evidence against Natural Selection — webs, eyes, wings, fig trees and fig wasps.

If I have a criticism of this book it’s that Dawkins spends a fair amount of time describing his computer programs which simulate some aspects of natural selection, a topic which would work far better on TV than it does in a book where it comes off as rather geeky; however his programs do serve to enhance some of his later explanations, so it’s a tough call.

13. Dead Men’s Boots – Mike Carey

I kicked off the year with the first two Felix Castor mysteries, and this is the third. It’s another enjoyably hard-boiled supernatural mystery with some truly nasty ideas and a likeable narrator. It’s the most sprawling of the three books in the series; in addition to the main plot strands there are several ongoing plot threads chugging away relating to Castor’s friends, acquaintances and the collateral damage he tends to inflict on those around him. I think it could have used a tighter structure, and the device of flagging important clues by having Castor “almost” grasp what’s going on becomes annoying after a while. Overall, though, Carey’s writing is as witty and eclectic as ever and I’m looking forward to the fourth one in October.

14. Sunshine – Robin McKinley

Sunshine finds herself captured and chained up in the same room as a vampire, one who not only fails to kill her but who needs her help to escape. This event kicks off a series of events in which she discovers her magical heritage and forms an uneasy, possibly romantic bond with the vampire. Put like that it sounds like a thousand fantasy-horror novels, but something about the very contemporary feel coupled with devices from fairy tales and SF sets this a bit above the pack. Sunshine is a very grounded heroine, one who works at a bakery and exists in a world very like our own. She has a distinctively rambling narrative voice that gets sidetracked easily, and as an avid reader of pulp-supernatural horror she’s very aware of the conventions of the genre she inhabits. At the same time she lives in a world unlike our own, where supernatural creatures are real, humanity lives in the aftermath of a global vampire war, and SF-nal jargon abounds.

For all the interesting world-building there’s a lot here that is conventional. Sunshine’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ relationship with the vampire both is and isn’t the usual ‘vampire-shagger’ wish-fulfilment. The plot is rather slight and spends a longish period treading water in the middle. Sunshine’s rambling voice sometimes results in clunky sentence structures that require multiple re-reads to understand, and the alt-history jargon is often implausible and annoying (dollars are “blinks”, info is “‘fo” etc.) McKinley also appears to be leaving quite a lot unresolved for potential sequels. That said, there are enough fresh twists on old ideas here that I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s not, as Neil Gaiman claims on the cover, “a perfect work of magical literature”, but it is very good.

So there you go. 14 books to date during 2008, precisely half the number my wife has read in the same period. I’d like to say I’ll catch up, but it’s a bit like Zeno’s Paradox.

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