What I’ve Been Reading

Not enough is my standard answer these days to people who ask what I’ve been reading lately. So much stuff to read, so little time. But still, I’m fitting a little bit of quality time with the written word in here and there, so a quick update.

On the books front, there’s been Pavane by Keith Roberts. Something of a mosaic novel: scenes from an alternate history, describing a 20th century Britain that has languished under a repressive and anti-technological Catholic yoke ever since the counter-factual success of the Spanish Armada. The details of the world are fascinating – clanking steam engines hauling land trains, a secretive Guild controlling the gigantic semaphore machines that transmit messages over long distances – but it’s the tone and quality of the writing that struck me most. Large chunks of the novel read almost like literary fiction, eschewing grand drama and concentrating at least as much on the evocation of setting and the inner world of the characters as on plot. It’s a book that gradually draws you in and although in some ways not a great deal happens, the cumulative effect is immersive and, for me anyway, quite memorable.

And there’s also been Vietnam by Stanley Karnow. Fairly regularly a nagging voice turns up in my head and points to some piece or period of history, ancient or modern, saying “Look, don’t you think that might be interesting? You don’t know nearly enough about it. You need to know more. Go on, buy a book. You know you want to.” And I, being of weak will, do as I am told, buy the biggest and most detailed-looking book I can find on the subject in question and spend the next little while discovering that yes indeed, it is interesting, and I did need to know more about it. Hence, this time around, Vietnam by Stanley Karnow.

On the graphic novel front: Rex Mundi, written by Arvid Nelson, volume 1 and volume 2 so far. I can’t describe it any better than the author’s own ‘elevator pitch’ for the story: “a quest for the Holy Grail told as a murder mystery, set in a Europe where the Catholic Church never fell from power and sorcerors stalk the streets at night”. So yes, it’s another alternate history focusing on the role of the Catholic Church, this time with some magic thrown in. It’s also got a very considerable amount in common, plot- and background-wise, with The Da Vinci Code (which it started to be published before, and than which IMHO it is better). Good fun, though the second volume flails around in the treacherous quicksands of exposition and info-dump a bit. I’ll be reading more.

And then there are webcomics. Which are, of course, being digital, touted by some as the future. There’s certainly been an explosion of them in recent years, and some seriously talented artists and writers are getting involved (though as far as I can tell they run up against exactly the same problem that so much that is internet-based does, i.e. it seems to be only a small minority of creators who can actually generate any significant revenue from their online exploits, unless they make the transition to print). Anyway, those I’m following at the moment (not counting things like PvP online and xkcd that everyone surely already knows about) include (all the following links are, by the way, to the first page of the comic where possible):

The Abominable Charles Christopher. The webcomic that got me interested in the form in the first place, and which I’ve praised before here, so I won’t go over old ground. But it’s still good.

Kukuburi. The surreal adventures of a delivery girl who passes through a magical doorway into a dream (or possibly nightmare?) world. Terrific art, and a wild visual imagination at work. Lots of funny and bizarre characters. Pretty light-hearted stuff that’s just plain fun.

Sin Titulo
. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here. It’s a mystery, with noirish overtones, but it’s also got dream sequences, biographical reminiscences, strange and possibly supernatural goings on. I’ve no real idea where it’s heading, but I find the journey interesting.

The American Dream. Completely different from the above, this is a gentle, engaging dream narrative whose basis is explained in the first panel: ‘I dreamed there was no America’. Though it updates regrettably infrequently, I really, really like it. The art is simple, cartoonish, but I find it quite beautiful.

The Futurists. This one’s only just started, so here’s a chance to get in on the ground floor. Set in India towards the end of the 19th century, it says it’s about ‘the quest for eternal life gone horribly wrong’, which sounds promising to me. The art’s certainly quite nice.

So there you are. I’ve not been entirely delinquent in my reading duties. Up next: What I’ve Been Writing. Yes, by some mysterious quirk of fate, my novel-writing career is not yet over. News on that front here next week. I’m sure you can’t wait.

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