I’ve always been a reader. My parents having made damn sure I could read beyond my age range before I went to school, I have subsequently always had my nose deeply embedded in a book. Wherever I go, I take one with me. And recently, there have been a few bookish events that have resulted in me bringing more books away with me, either paid for or complementary copies.
I saw Lauren Beukes read and talk at Forbidden Planet, so I bought her latest book Broken Monsters and she signed it for me. The next day was the first ever Gollancz Festival, which, at a mere £6 a ticket, was a fucking bargain. Serious value for money, and even more so for Laz and me, as not only did we have tickets for the room 1 events, but we were invited by Joanne Harris to see her reading in room 2. This meant that we got two goodie bags each instead of one, and in each bag there were two books, a pen, badges, promo postcards and bookmarks. Plus the bags themselves were proper cotton totes, making it even better value for money. Maggie, one of our Plot Bunnies, was also there for room 1 and she picked up a bag for another bunny who couldn’t be there. Thus, between us, we got a pretty decent haul of books.
I was re-reading Kevin Sampson’s Powder when I bought Broken Monsters, and I have mixed feelings about that. Not about reading the book itself, as I’m always reading something. It’s a rare day you find me not reading. But as I’d read it years before, and I remembered it being good, I thought I’d give it another go. And I was disappointed. Not only with the quality of the writing, which was OK but not spectacular, but with the obviously shoehorned-in research. There was no need for half of it. Plus, of course, it was clearly written by a man, as the band in the book, The Grams (are there no better names for bands out there? Really?), seemed to be more concerned with how many blow jobs they were gonna get when they reached the venue than anything to do with the music itself. That narked me, somewhat, and made me like it much less than I felt I ought to have done. Plus, I was also picking holes in the sentences, getting more and more frustrated with it as I went on, and then the ending was something of nothing, which left me thinking, is that it? All in all, it was a bit of a meh experience.
So, once that was out of the way, I moved on to Broken Monsters, which I had been dying to read ever since I knew Lauren was writing it. I started off with the first hundred pages or so and then stopped for the evening, as I wanted to savour this one. Lauren’s writing is stunning and her command of both language and story are enviable. But once I got started again, I devoured it. Stephen King was right – it’s fucking impossible to put this book down until you get to the end, and that is a sign of a good writer who knows what she’s doing. So if you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you go and get yourself a copy and read it.
I’ve also finally read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and there’s a story that goes with this. I’ve always loved Blade Runner. It’s one of my all-time favourite films. But I’d never read the book it was based on. It was one of those things where I thought it would be so different from the film (it is) that I wouldn’t actually be able to get into it (I did – immediately). So when I finally read it, I practically inhaled it. But there’s another aspect to this story. Joanne Harris recently did a photo shoot for an egg company, which meant sitting in an armchair in her pyjamas reading to a group of hens. So she invited her Twitter followers to come up with titles for a virtual hen bookshelf and used the hashtag #HenBooks. I came up with a few, but my favourite, and the one Joanne retweeted, was Do Androids Dream of Electric Hens? (which I would totally read, by the way). It gave me a giggle and that was when I thought I really ought to read it. The sheep version, though. Not the hens version. (I’m not sure what it is about hens that I’ve always found so amusing, but there you go.)
Now I’ve finally moved on to Kate Mosse’s critically acclaimed Labyrinth. It’s been on my bookcase for about eight years, but it’s so hefty that I feared I might start it and not finish, and I hate doing that. But now I have started it and it’s wonderful. It’s not without its flaws – there are plenty of sentences that I, as a writer, want to tweak – but that doesn’t matter, because the story is well told. That’s important. You have to care, and Kate Mosse (a local writer, for me, as she lives in Chichester) has made sure we do care. The only issue I have with it at the moment is that the Occitan language and French appear to be interchangeable and I’m not sure that’s the intention. At the beginning, Kate tells us she uses both to distinguish between characters from the north and south of what is now France, but I’ve found myself becoming confused in places. But the story is so strong and so compelling that I can overlook it (maybe it’s me being thick, but I do find myself flicking back a few pages every so often to try to work out whether or not I might have missed something – sometimes I have, other times not). But I totally understand why this became the sensation it did. At almost 700 pages, it’s a properly heavy book, but it doesn’t contain properly heavy writing, which means it’s been easy to get into and stay within the grip of the plot, which is fucking great.
So why do I read so many books? Actually, I don’t read half as many as I’d like, for various reasons, though the main one is lack of both physical space and head space. When I had a lot of time to myself recently, I read a lot more books than I would otherwise have done in that time. But do I read to escape reality? Yes. Do I read to educate myself, knowing that within fiction lie the truths that no government will ever tell you? Yes, absolutely. (Why else would some books be banned in certain countries? Knowledge is dangerous.) I also read to keep me on my toes. Sure, my desire to write my own books was a direct consequence of having always read so many – I’ve seen writing by people who are not habitual readers and it’s fucking painful – but if I didn’t carry on reading (why was that never made into a comedy film?), I would have no business calling myself a writer. I read so I can write better. I read because I enjoy reading (and frankly don’t even pretend to understand those who think reading is a chore). The need for stories is a natural part of being human, and so by not reading, I honestly believe people are missing out on a fundamental part of themselves, a part which they make up for with other things, and those things often make them very unpleasant to be around.
I surround myself with writers and readers and find it very odd when someone says they don’t read. I mean… what the fuck? Why would anyone not read for fun?