Last year’s list this year

Last February I wrote a blog post listing a handful of dystopian novels. It’s been almost a year and a half, and I think a further update is required. This time, the list is not one of recommendation, but one of personal consumption. These are the books that I think I need to read this year. I’d be happy for any further recommendations in the comments.

  1. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Milton Mayer). “Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted – or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion.”
  2. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Timothy Snyder). “History can familiarize, and it can warn. Today, we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But when the political order seems imperiled, our advantage is that we can learn from their experience to resist the advance of tyranny. Now is a good time to do so.”
  3. Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda (Romeo Dallaire). “It took me seven years to finally have the desire, the willpower and the stamina to begin to describe in detail the events of that year in Rwanda. To recount, from my insider’s point of view, how a country moved from the promise of a certain peace to intrigue, the fomenting of racial hatred, assassinations, civil war and genocide. And how the international community, through an inept UN mandate and what can only be described as indifference, self-interest and racism, aided and abetted these crimes against humanity – how we all helped create the mess that has murdered and displaced millions and destabilized the whole central African region.”

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

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My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

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Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

BrimstoneBehind Her Eyes

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

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Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

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In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

Autumn books!

I love autumn. The chill in the air, the colours, the smells, the darker nights. To me, autumn is hot, comforting drinks and nice, comforting books.

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This autumn, my reading list is particularly self-indulgent. I almost wish for poor weather to justify the hours I plan to spend on the sofa with a stack of books. While it is not looking like 2016 will be particularly nice and chilly (given recent heat records), we can always hope for a few thunderstorms. Given my penchant for horror, that would suit me just fine.

Fellside img_2261by M.R.Carey has been on my radar for some time, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to wait until Halloween to dig into that particular book. A twist on the classic ghost story set in a prison at the edge of the Yorkshire moors should fit the season nicely. I have been told that Fellside is a book susceptible to spoilers, like Carey’s earlier The Girl With All The Gifts, so I’m staying clear of reviews, although ratings suggest I’m in for a treat. Actually, just looking at the cover makes me excited. amityvillecover

I’m planning on tackling an old classic: The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, as it is one of those stories I’ve watched but never actually read. I have been told that the book is creepier than the film(s), so I’ve got my hopes up.

I’m also looking forward to a steampunk fix. Island of Birds, the sequel to Austin Hackney’s Beyond the Starline, has recently been released, and I may also pick up a book in the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, probably Clementine or Dreadnought. If anyone has any thoughts on which I should go for after Boneshaker, let me know in the comments.

aftermathYet another sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig, is also on my list, which should get me in the mood for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film in December (not that I need to get more in the mood for Star Wars). I truly enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, although I am aware that the response to it was not uniformly positive. All I can say is that Mister Bones is right up there with BB-8 on the list of favourite droids, but for very different reasons.

I also plan to settle down with two non-fiction books: 1812: Napolerabidon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, which was recommended to me more than a year ago by a friend, and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, simply because the subject matter is fascinating. The monster du jour, zombies, do not make an appearance in Rabid, if reviews are to be believed, but I expect to get a fair few parallels with werewolf myths in addition to the history and biology of one of the nastiest viruses out there. The scientist in me is quite excited about Rabid.

In short, it’s looking like it will be a pretty good autumn. What are you planning on reading? Let me know in the comments.

Book review: Prisoners of Geography

Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. That’s the promise Tim Marshall makes in his bestselling 2015 book. We get ten chapters, each with a map, outlining the opportunities, drawbacks and resulting policies (and often military actions) of each region.

“In different parts of the planet, different geographical features are among the dominant factors in determining what people can and cannot do.”

A mountain range can be a buffer or a hindrance, depending on your point of view. Rivers mean access and access means business, but not all rivers are built for the job. Heights and sea lanes are worth controlling. Access to oceans is part and parcel of becoming a world power. Natural harbours? Yes, please. Trees? Practical for building ships. Indeed, much of the book is about practicality, working around rarely-changing facts of geography. Where you are and what you’ve got to work with will determine who you become.

We start with Russia, buffered by a vast expanse of land yet poor on warm water harbours; then China, insulated by the Himalayas and with three of its great rivers springing from the contested Tibetan plateau; the US, a two-ocean power with an unrivalled global naval presence; Western Europe with its flatland and navigable rivers built for business, Africa with its flush resources but sadly less navigable rivers; the Middle East and its population divides; India and Pakistan; Korea and Japan; Latin America; and finally, the Arctic. The chapter on the Arctic is particularly interesting, as the changing climate renders the frozen north and its resources more and more accessible, and opens sea lanes and access points.

It’s a treasure trove for anyone wanting to understand international politics a little better and get a firmer idea of why some conflicts appear doomed to repeat themselves throughout history. And also a hint as to new ones.

“Water wars are considered to be among the coming conflicts this century and this is one to watch.”

It is also a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi. Want a desert city? There will be practical constraints. That mountain range that looks cool on a Tolkienesque map? It’s going to have some implications for trade. A continent-spanning river for your plucky heroes to navigate? Who controls the source and who needs the water? Figuring that out might tell you who governs, who attacks and who defends.

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Your farmboy’s home country is a peaceful oasis surrounded by aggressive countries waiting for the foretold saviour for centuries? Best make sure it has plenty of natural barriers and/or no values (position, resources etc) to speak of, otherwise the peace might not be so stable after all.

It’s a great read, and if I had to make a criticism, it would be that the book is perhaps a bit thin. I could have consumed more maps, examples and details with ease. Nevertheless, it provides a taste of some of the major features of geopolitics, summarising the historical backdrop, how events repeat themselves over and over again in the face of geographical realities, and how the effect of technology and the warming world changes priorities, opportunities and constraints. Also, maps are cool.

Go read!

(Bonus points for recognising the map)

Book Review: The World Without Us

I read a fair bit of non-fiction and often find that these books can be just as strange as their creative counterparts. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman, 2008) is one such stranger-than-fiction book.

What would happen if all humans suddenly vanished? How long before wildlife reclaimed cities? How long would our buildings last? How long before all traces of us are gone? In short, what would the world without us look like? It’s a fascinating hypothetical and sounds like it should be more than a bit disconcerting, but the book itself is quite positive in its description of our impermanence.

There are examples of places on earth where sudden human abandonment has already happened, including the Korean demilitarized zone and Chernobyl.

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Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned April 27, 1986, the day after Chernobyl.

“In Pripyat, an unlovely cluster of concrete 1970s high-rises, returning poplars, purple asters and lilacs have split the pavement and invaded buildings. Unused asphalt streets sport a coat of moss.”

In the wake of human disappearance, nuclear plants would eventually overheat, and the world might see Chernobyl after Chernobyl. It might also see the triumphant return of many endangered species. In Korea, the 4 km wide demilitarized zone is one of few remaining refuges for the Asiatic black bear with its white chest patch, the tusked Chinese water deer, and the exceedingly rare Amur leopard.

What about cities? The book uses New York City as an example. This is, as most other cities, a ‘tamed’ landscape. The land upon which NYC was built was once packed with streams, now replaced by the storm sewer systems and kept in check by more than 700 pumps. If humans disappeared, the pumps would stop, the streams flood the tunnels and streets, eventually carving out rivers as streets collapse. Flooding of the subway would take no more than two days, and the cave-in of streets only a few years. Post-apocalyptic fiction describing long-abandoned concrete cities still structurally intact might just be a bit generous, if truth be told.

“As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble.”

Wildlife already exists in our presence and would flourish in our absence. This new New York would see foxes and coyotes, deer and bears, maybe the odd domestic cat gone feral, yet cockroaches would die without heated buildings at these latitudes and rats might also not do well without our garbage to live upon.

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The abandoned High Line, New York City.

This is post-apocalyptic non-fiction at its finest. Old stone buildings linger, modern buildings not so much. Water seeps into cracks, freezes in winter and tears concrete and asphalt apart. Plastic and bronze, however, are the stuff of forever. Millions of years from now, bronze sculptures in our image could be staring blindly at the hypothetical visitor to our planet.

The World Without Us is nicely written, engaging and compelling. The first third of the book in particular is highly recommended. It does veer off a bit mid-way through the book, but despite these asides, it remains worth the time. An excellent book for any writer of post-apocalyptic fiction as well as science enthusiasts. This is a ‘what if’ that stays with you.

(free chapter here: http://www.worldwithoutus.com/excerpt.html)