What I’ve been reading lately, part 25

Deep Space Accountant — Mjke Wood

This was a BookBub freebie, which I picked up because it was free and I found the conceit amusing.

I’m glad I did. It’s much better than it needed to be, offering some amusing characters, a genuinely nasty conspiracy and rather an exciting finale. As I write, the Kindle edition costs 99p. It’s not great literature, but it’s well worth picking up. Put it this way: I’d buy the sequel if it was also 99p, but I’m not going to pay £2.99 for it.

Small Dreams of a Scorpion — Spike Milligan

I picked this up for a song in a charity shop because I’ve never read a Spike Milligan book that wasn’t at least interesting. Much of his work is absolutely brilliant: effortlessly and bitingly funny. I’d particular recommend the early volumes of his war memoirs, beginning with Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.

What I didn’t realise as I handed over my 50p was that Small Dreams is a book of poems — and not only that, but of serious poems, unlike for example The Book of Milliganimals, which I love. (Sample lines: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright / Watch out, you’ll set the jungle alight.”) I am atrocious at reading poetry — it just seems to slide right off my brain. So I approached Small Dreams with some trepidation.

Happily, Milligan comes through here. His poems are short enough that I can digest each one as a whole; and he has genuine points to make, almost every time. Non-comic verse is not a medium I am likely to return to very often; but if I ever do, this is the book that I’ll re-read.

Death Comes as an End — Agatha Christie

The most absolutely bizarre of all Agatha Christie’s books (unless she has something really special coming up in her later works, that I’ve not read about). Unlike all her other novels, which are set more or less contemporarily with when they were written, this is set 4000 years ago, in Iron-age Egypt.

In almost every respect, this setting makes no difference at all to the story. The characters are ones that we have come to know well from other Christie novels: the overbearing father, the dutiful older son and the hot-headed younger, the daughter returned to the household after the early death of her husband, the widowed father’s scheming young new wife, the long-standing household servant who bears a grudge, and so on. They really are characters straight out of one of Christie’s 1930s drawing-room murders, flavoured only in the most perfunctory way with ancient-Egyptian religious ideas.

That said, it’s not a bad book — just one that neither needs nor benefits from its exotic setting. It’s unusually bloody: the corpses fall like flies, until by the end you can pretty much guess who the murderer is because there’s no-one else left standing. There’s a clever twist earlier on, though, by which the murderer conceals his or her identity; I was pleased that, for once, I saw through this.

Anyway, Death Comes as an End is jolly enough, but definitely not a good jumping-on point for people coming to Agatha Christie for the first time.

The Wisdom of the Desert — Thomas Merton

I read this a few years ago and found it disappointing, so I thought it would be only fair to give it another go. Merton (1915-1968) was a Catholic monk who is widely read today for his contemplative insights and his focus on social justice. He’s someone who I keep thinking I ought to find appealing for similar kinds of reasons to C. S. Lewis, but the lightning has not struck yet.

And certainly not with this book. It’s a compilation of very short stories — mostly single paragraphs — about the Desert Fathers, early Christian hermits who lived in the deserts of Egypt in the 3rd Century AD. The stories are supposed to embody wisdom: you can get a feeling from Wikipedia’s excerpts from their sayings. The problem is, a lot of them seem either simple restatements of Jesus’s teaching (which, OK), or Just Pain Wrong to me — not to mention unbiblical, which is a problem for Christian philosophers. “Obedience with abstinence gives men power over wild beasts”? Not so much.

I’ve not given up on Merton, but next time I’ll read something he wrote himself rather than something he collected from existing sources.

Thrill-Power Overload: 2000 AD, the first forty years — David Bishop and Karl Stock

As a long-time fan of, and occasional contributor to, the comic 2000 AD, I’ve been reading quite a lot of reprinted strips recently: The Complete Future Shocks (not really complete), The Complete Harlem Heroes and The Stainless Steel Rat adaptation, and Flesh: The Dino Files. And I watched both the 1995 and 2012 Judge Dredd films, so you don’t have to. No need to thank me.

I’ve also been following the blog of Pat Mills, who was the creator and first editor of 2000 AD (though, annoyingly, he seems to have removed most of the best posts, perhaps to hold them back for his recent book on the early history of the comic). Having read the comic at age nine and loved it uncritically, it’s fascinating to find out what was happening behind the scenes — how turbulent the process of creating it was.

Thrill-Power Overload is a history of the comic told from the perspective of David Bishop, one of the subsequent editors. It covers all 40 years of the comic’s history so far, but I bought it for the material on the first few years. It didn’t disappoint: those years are covered in much more detail than the subsequent history — although in fact I found all of it interesting and read to the end, despite not having seen an issue since the mid-1980s. It’s no secret that Bishop and Mills do not see eye to eye, but it seems to me that Mills get fair shrift in Bishop’s account: he’s described as difficult to work with, but rightly credited with an extraordinary record of creativity and hard work.

2000 AD really was a phenomenon: the first British comic to compete on equal terms with American giants like Marvel and DC, and indeed the first British comic to even attempt to. It famously provided a launchpad to many of the most important writers and artists in comics, notably Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Dave Gibbons, who have gone on to bigger and better things. But it was well worth reading in its own right, and a lot of it still stands up well — rather better, I think, than most of the Marvel silver-age stuff.

Anyway, Thrill-Power Overload is well worth reading for anyone who loved or loves the comic. I don’t expect to re-read it any time soon, but no doubt I will eventually return to the opening sections, at least. (Especially if I go ahead and spring for Mills’s account of the same period!)

Snuff — Terry Pratchett

The last-but-one of the main-series Discworld books, to be followed by Raising Steam which I have not yet read (and also by the young-adult book The Shepherd’s Crown). It would perhaps be unfair to expect Pratchett, then towards the end of his life, to have been at the very top of his form, and there are parts of this Sam Vimes story that do feel very much like re-treads of earlier books. But it’s not that this one is any worse than those; had it been written earlier and, say, The Fifth Elephant later, no doubt we’d be saying that TFE was derivative. Still, while not finding much that’s unique about Snuff, I did wholeheartedly enjoy it while it lasted. Pratchett is always, at least, fun.

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, volume 3 — Philip K. Dick

Many years ago, I read volumes 1 and 5 of the Collected Stories — the first and last, as the whole set is five volumes. I was struck then by how very much he’d improved between the workaday 1950s pulp sci-fi of his first volume to the provocative, idea-rich stories of his last. More recently I’ve read volumes 2 and 3, and I’m surprised and disappointed at how little progress he seems to have made by the end of volume 3, 60% of the way through his career by short-story volume. Each of the first three volumes have a couple of gems, but they really are isolated beams of light. It seems he only really hit his stride late in his career.

Sparkling Cyanide — Agatha Christie

A year ago, a young wife died by poisoning — cyanide in her champagne — at a dinner party held at an upscale restaurant. It was initially ruled suicide, but her husband began to wonder whether it was murder. Now, a year later, he restages the same dinner party at the same restaurant, hoping to unmask the killer — and is murdered in turn, by the same method.

How was it done? By whom? And why? Answers to all these questions become apparent, but are not as satisfying as they are in the best of Christie’s novels. It’s a strange thing, but much as Christie loathed Hercule Poirot and as irritating as the character can indeed be, she does seem to have pretty consistently done her best work in the books where he is the central detective. He’s absent here, and Colonel Race is a poor substitute.



4 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 25

  1. Your review of Deep Space Accountant reminds me of the old San Francisco Chronicle movie rating scale. There lowest level above completely awful was, watch it if you are sick. Sounds about right. I grabbed a copy. It looks like a terrible flu season.

  2. Sounds like I was less enthusiastic in my write-up of Deep Space Accountant than I actually felt. It’s good. Well worth reading. Not great literature, but enjoyable.

  3. Re: Thomas Merton – have you read The Seven Storey Mountain? I found it compelling, his autobiography up to the point where he entered the monastery. Everything else follows from what brought him to that life decision.

  4. I haven’t read it; but I might well do so.

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