misc

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Comments off

I've finally given up on the idea of making my blog a "social" site, and have turned off comments. The amount of spam I was getting on every article was absolutely ridiculous and took about 2 hours to clean up every time I got round to doing it.

I've now cleaned up all the spam (apologies if I removed any legitimate comments that anyone actually cared about). From now on will be turning off comments for every blog post and article (not many, given that I rarely update my blog these days).

Anyone who really want to get in touch with me can track me down via @townxelliot on Twitter.

Books read 2014

I read 67 books in 2014:

Books read 2013

I read 36 books in 2013. Here's the list:

Free SF, science fiction, horror, fantasy and weird ebooks for the Kindle and others

What is this?

This is my very biased overview of free ebooks for the Kindle. It only covers books I'm interested in: mainly old Fantastic fiction - gothic novels, horror, ghost stories, surrealism, sword and sorcery, lost worlds, and other odd books. There are tons more classic SF&F books out there which you can get hold of.

Sources of free e-books

http://manybooks.net/

This is an excellent site which aggregates various free books, mainly from Project Gutenberg but covering various other outlets, with a decent summary page for each book and author; it enables you to generate downloadable ebooks for each book, as well as read and create book reviews.

There is also a mobile site at mnybks.net, which you can browse directly from your Kindle.

Note: when browsing the full site via Kindle, I've found that the only downloads which work properly are Amazon ones - if I try to do mobipocket downloads, they don't work. Strangely, mobipocket files downloaded from there via a PC or laptop then sent to the Kindle (via email or USB) do work properly.

http://amazon.co.uk/

This is particularly nice, as any content you buy at Amazon will sync to any device where you have a Kindle app (e.g. a phone).

http://gutenberg.org/

I think the content in here is pretty much covered by manybooks.net, but there may be places where a gutenberg ebook isn't on manybooks.net.

http://gutenberg.net.au/

Australia has slightly different copyright laws from the US, so some books may be available here which aren't on the US Gutenberg site.

http://gutenberg.ca/

Canada also has slightly different copyright; the site is likely to have more titles in French than the US site.

http://archive.org

The Internet Archive has some items which aren't held by Project Gutenberg.

Converting various formats for use on a Kindle

I tend to get or make .mobi files; Kindle's own format is .amz.

If you can find a book in PDF or HTML format, you can convert it in the following ways:

  • Kindle
    You can send PDFs and HTML files to Amazon for conversion and later download to your Kindle.

You should have an email set up for your Kindle first. They tell you about the paid one, but you should have a free one in the format <your name>@free.kindle.com.

Once you've done that, do the following to convert the PDF:

  1. Send an email to <your name>@free.kindle.com
  2. Set the subject line to "Convert"
  3. Attach the PDF or HTML file(s)

The converted file will automatically be sync'ed to your Kindle.
You can also send .mobi files direct to your Kindle at the @free.kindle.com address: just miss out the "Convert" subject line

  • Online ebook converter
    http://ebook.online-convert.com/
    This works pretty well, and is especially useful as you can change the author and title of the output book. However, for some PDFs, I found the output was a bit of a mess. I ended up using the Amazon email conversion mostly (see above).
    The one place where I did use this was for converting .lrf files to .mobi, as the Amazon converter won't do this.
  • kindlegen
    This is a command line program (works on Linux) you can use to convert HTML files to Amazon ebooks. Can be useful if you want to iteratively edit your own HTML and test how it looks, without having to send it via email to your Kindle. Get it from the Kindlegen page on Amazon.

A big old list of books

The links below point either at a page where you can download the book in one or more formats, or to a PDF or HTML version of the book. Where the source is HTML or PDF or something else, I've marked it; otherwise you can assume there's a mobipocket (.mobi) or Kindle (.amz) format version available (Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks both provide these types of Kindle-compatible file).

I've also made zero attempt to organise alphabetically or by date.

Free sf / fantasy / horror / supernatural books

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov (1940)

http://justcheckingonall.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/master-and-margarit... (PDF)
(translation released under Creative Commons licence)

The Worm Ouroboros - E.R. Eddison (1922)

http://manybooks.net/titles/eddisoneother060602051.html
(I've read this - it is hard going, but worth reading if you're interested in the history of fantasy and like archaic English)

The Works of Edgar Allen Poe (5 volumes) (19th century)

Volume 1: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2147
Volume 2: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2148
Volume 3: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2149
Volume 4: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2150
Volume 5: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2151
(obviously very important in the history of various genres)

Clark Ashton Smith short stories

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/ (HTML)
(these are in HTML format, but pretty easy to convert to an ebook; I used a bit of scripting to spider the website, munge the HTML files into one big file, then convert the result into a mobipocket ebook)

The Wood Beyond the World - William Morris (1894)

http://manybooks.net/titles/morriswi30553055.html
(an early and influential fantasy novel)

The Green Child - Herbert Read (1934)

http://www.archive.org/download/greenchild030736mbp/greenchild030736mbp....
(apparently quite surreal)

Lilith - George MacDonald (1896)

http://manybooks.net/titles/macdonaletext99lilth11.html
(a very early, and influential, fantasy novel)

The Marvelous Land of Oz - L. Frank Baum (1904)

http://manybooks.net/titles/baumlfraetext93ozland10.html
(I picked this one as it's the one I loved when I was a child)

The Great God Pan - Arthur Machen (1894)

http://manybooks.net/titles/machenaretext96ggpan10.html
(an influence on H.P. Lovecraft; I read it, it was reasonably good)

The Three Impostors - Arthur Machen (1895)

http://manybooks.net/titles/machenarother090301561.html
(some opinion claims this is one of his best books)

She - H. Rider Haggard (1886)

http://manybooks.net/titles/haggardhetext02shrhe10.html
(I loved King Solomon's Mines when I was younger, so thought I'd try this; it was a pretty good read)

Jurgen - James Branch Cabell (1922)

http://manybooks.net/titles/cabelljaetext058jurg10.html
(infamous fantasy novel which caused a scandal on its publication)

Fantômas - Pierre Souvestre (1915)

http://manybooks.net/titles/souvestrep2779427794-8.html
(about a master criminal)

The Wallet of Kai Lung - Ernest Bramah (1900)

http://manybooks.net/titles/bramaheretext97wklng10.html
(set in China)

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton (1907)

http://manybooks.net/titles/chestertetext99tmwht10.html
(I read this one: very odd, very readable, amusing, worth a read; reviewed by someone else at http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2009/cur0901.htm)

The Club of Queer Trades - G.K. Chesterton (1905)

http://manybooks.net/titles/chestertetext99tcoqt10.html
(mystery short stories a la Sherlock Holmes)

The Napoleon of Notting Hill - G.K. Chesterton (1904)

http://manybooks.net/titles/chestert2005820058-8.html

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder - James De Mille (1888)

http://manybooks.net/titles/demillejetext04msscc10.html
(reviewed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/oct/03/strange-manuscript-de-mille-...)

A Voyage to Arcturus - David Lindsay (1920)

http://manybooks.net/titles/lindsaydavietext98vrctr10.html
(apparently very odd and a fantasy classic)

Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley - Lord Dunsany (1922)

http://manybooks.net/titles/dunsanyetext03drodr10.html
(you can't get The King of Elfland's Daughter (his masterwork) legally in the UK as an ebook, but you can get this, which is meant to be nearly as good)

Nightmare Abbey - Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

http://manybooks.net/titles/peacocktetext068nmab10.html

Goslings - J.D. Beresford (1913)

http://www.archive.org/details/goslings00bereiala
(post-apocalypse)

The Inner House - Walter Besant (1888)

http://www.archive.org/details/innerhouse00besagoog
(utopia)

The Amazing Marriage - George Meredith (1895)

http://manybooks.net/titles/meredithgeoetext03gm94v10.html
(one of the books Michael Moorcock likes to give away)

Household Tales - Brothers Grimm (1884)

http://manybooks.net/titles/grimmetext04grimm10a.html
(saw this mentioned by Sarah Waters as a favourite book from her childhood)

Descent into Hell - Charles Williams (1937)

http://manybooks.net/titles/williamscharlesother08Descent_into_Hell.html
(Williams is mentioned in 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels - he was an associate of C.S. Lewis, and wrote what T.S. Eliot called "supernatural thrillers" - this novel is considered one of his best)

The Place of the Lion - Charles Willians (1933)

http://manybooks.net/titles/williamscharlesother09place_of_the_lion.html
(I've read this one: not the easiest read I've ever had: shifts mood very abruptly, has long passages of Christian mysticism, and characters you can't really associate with; but thoughtful, with great imagery, and some genuine moments of psychological horror; has to be read to be believed, really)

War in Heaven - Charles Williams (1930)

http://manybooks.net/titles/williamscharlesother09war_in_heaven.html
(given I enjoyed The Place of the Lion, I thought I'd try this, which is meant to be more straightforward: a Holy Grail thriller with supernatural elements)

The Hour of the Dragon (Conan the Conqueror) - Robert E. Howard (1936)

http://manybooks.net/titles/howardrother07hour_of_the_dragon.html
(the Conan books were the first fantasy books I read when I was about 10; time to revisit them)

Atlantida (aka The Queen of Atlantis) - Pierre Benoît (1919)

http://manybooks.net/titles/benoitp1430114301-8.html
(early Atlantis novel - I just finished The Serpent by Jane Gaskell, which ends in Atlantis, so thought I might follow the theme)

The House on the Borderland - William Hope Hodgson (1907)

http://manybooks.net/titles/hodgsonwother06houseontheborderland.html
(I've read this one: an intense weird/horror/supernatural/occult tale)

The Night Land - William Hope Hodgson (1912)

http://manybooks.net/titles/hodgsonw10661066210662.html
(supposedly very long and hard-going, but considered his best by many)

The History of Caliph Vathek (aka Vathek) - William Beckford (1787)

http://manybooks.net/titles/beckford20620602060.html
(proto-Gothic novel)

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (1764)

http://manybooks.net/titles/walpolehoraetext96cotrt10.html
(another proto-Gothic novel)

Knock, Knock, Knock, and Other Stories - Ivan Turgenev (collected 2004, 19th century)

http://manybooks.net/titles/turgenevetext048knck10.html
(supernatural/mystery tales)

The Witch, and Other Stories - Anton Chekhov (collected 2006, 19th century)

http://manybooks.net/titles/chekhovaetext99witch10.html

Weird Tales (2 volumes) - E.T.A. Hoffmann (1885)

Volume 1: http://manybooks.net/titles/hoffmannet3137731377-8.html
Volume 2: http://manybooks.net/titles/hoffmannet3143931439-8.html
(Volume 1 includes The Sandman, one of the oddest and most unsettling stories you're likely to read)

Hunger - Knut Hamsun (1890)

http://manybooks.net/titles/hamsunknetext058hngr10.html

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

http://manybooks.net/titles/gilmanchetext92hrlnd10.html
(early feminist sf classic)

The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells (1898)

http://manybooks.net/titles/wellshgetext92warw12.html
(most of Wells' work appears to be available from Project Gutenberg)

The Island of Dr. Moreau - H.G. Wells (1896)

http://manybooks.net/titles/wellshgetext94dmoro11.html
(as recommended by China Miéville in http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/may/16/fiction.bestbooks; will probably read this first out of the H.G. Wells books I have)

Edgar Huntly - Charles Brockden Brown (1799)

http://manybooks.net/titles/brownchaetext05edhnt10.html
(I've seen his work compared to Borges)

The Green Odyssey - Philip Jose Farmer (1957)

http://manybooks.net/titles/farmerpother05The_Green_Odyssey.html
(I'm a fan of his stuff, and this novel is public domain)

In the Penal Colony - Franz Kafka (1919)

http://manybooks.net/titles/kafkafraother05penal_colony.html
(don't need to say much about his work, I guess)

The Trial - Franz Kafka (1925)

http://manybooks.net/titles/kafkafraetext05ktria10.html

Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka (1912)

http://manybooks.net/titles/kafkafraetext04metam10.html

A Princess of Mars - Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)

http://manybooks.net/titles/burroughseetext93pmars13.html
(very topical, what with the John Carter film)

The Enchanted Castle - E. Nesbit (1907)

http://manybooks.net/titles/nesbite3421934219-8.html

Uncle Silas - Sheridan Le Fanu (1864)

http://manybooks.net/titles/fanujose1485114851-8.html

Zuleika Dobson - Max Beerbohm (1911)

http://manybooks.net/titles/beerbohmetext99zdbsn11.html

The King in Yellow - Robert W. Chambers (1895)

http://manybooks.net/titles/chambersetext058kngy10.html
(horror short stories)

The Twilight of the Gods, and Other Tales - Richard Garnett (1903)

http://manybooks.net/titles/garnettr10091009510095.html
(often included in "best fantasy books" lists)

The Coming Race - Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1871)

http://manybooks.net/titles/lyttonedetext99cmgrc10.html
(lost world story)

Across the Zodiac - Percy Greg (1880)

http://manybooks.net/titles/percyg10161016510165-8.html
(early Planetary Romance sf)

The Hampdenshire Wonder - J.D. Beresford (1911)

http://manybooks.net/titles/beresfordjother060601411.html
(child prodigy sf)

The Lost Continent - Charles John Cutcliffe Hyne (1900)

http://manybooks.net/titles/hynecjcuetext95lostc10.html
(an early Atlantis story)

The Beetle - Richard Marsh (1897)

http://manybooks.net/titles/marshricetext04thbtl10.html
(horror)

The Inheritors - Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford (1901)

http://manybooks.net/titles/conradjo1488814888-8.html
(Conrad's only sf novel)

Greener than You Think - Ward Moore (1947)

http://manybooks.net/titles/moorew2424624246-8.html
(he wrote Bring the Jubilee, considered an sf classic; wonder if this is any good?)

The Monk - Matthew Gregory Lewis (1796)

http://manybooks.net/titles/lewismatetext96tmonk10.html
(proto-Gothic classic)

Dracula - Bram Stoker (1897)

http://manybooks.net/titles/stokerbretext95dracu12.html

Ghostly Tales (5 Volumes) - Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1853 - 1871)

Volume 1: http://manybooks.net/titles/fanujose1169911699-8.html
Volume 2: http://manybooks.net/titles/fanujose1170011700-8.html
Volume 3: http://manybooks.net/titles/fanujose1175011750-8.html
Volume 4: http://manybooks.net/titles/fanujose12641264712647-8.html
Volume 5: http://manybooks.net/titles/fanujose1259212592-8.html

Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories - Ambrose Bierce (collected 2003)

http://manybooks.net/titles/bierceametext03prhg10.html

Ghost Stories of an Antiquity (2 volumes) - M.R. James (1904, 1911)

Volume 1: http://manybooks.net/titles/jamesmonetext058jgst10.html
Volume 2: http://manybooks.net/titles/jamesmonetext068jgs210.html

After London (or Wild England) - Richard Jefferies (1885)

http://manybooks.net/titles/jefferie13941394413944-8.html

Pledged to the Dead - Seabury Quinn (1937)

http://manybooks.net/titles/quinns3251432514-8.html
(horror)

The Sign of the Spider - Bertram Mitford (1896)

http://manybooks.net/titles/mitfordb2747627476-8.html
("an adventure of cannibals, slave traders, man-eating crocodiles, fighting off hordes of Zulus and a terrifying spider-beast" - how can I resist?)

The Metal Monster - Abraham Merritt (1920)

http://manybooks.net/titles/merrittaetext02memon10.html
(this chap is considered one of the great pulp sf writers; I read The Ship of Ishtar, which was a rollicking good adventure)

Widdershins - Oliver Onions (1911)

http://manybooks.net/titles/onionso1416814168-8.html
(contains The Beckoning Fair One, considered a classic ghost story, which I've never read)

The Tower of Oblivion - Oliver Onions (1921)

http://manybooks.net/titles/onionso3470334703-8.html
(reviewed at http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2001/cur0105.htm - sounds good)

Where the Blue Begins - Christopher Morley (1922)

http://manybooks.net/titles/morleychetext98wtbbg10.html
(reviewed at http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/1999/cur9906.htm; quite a peculiar book about an anthropomorphised dog who works in a department store)

The Pathless Trail - Arthur O. Friel (1922)

http://manybooks.net/titles/friela3032430324-8.html
(mentioned at http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2011/01/2010_in_review-comments.s...)

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (1847)

http://manybooks.net/titles/bronteemetext96wuthr10.html
(never read this, but meant to be good and gothic)

Modern Creative Commons / free books

Agent to the Stars - John Scalzi (1999)

http://manybooks.net/titles/scalzijother06agent_to_the_stars.html

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - Cory Doctorow (2003)

http://manybooks.net/titles/doctorowother05domkg10.html
(much (all?) of Doctorow's work is Creative Commons, though I've yet to read any, I'm embarassed to say; full list at http://manybooks.net/authors/doctorow.html)

Painkillers - Simon Ings (2000)

http://manybooks.net/titles/ingssother08painkillers_the_novel.html
(I've read some of his short stories, and thought this might be worth a punt)

The Ware Tetralogy - Rudy Rucker (2010)

http://manybooks.net/titles/ruckerrother10rucker_ware_tetralogy_cc2010.h...
(comprising Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware; I read one of his novels years ago (I think it was Software), and keep meaning to read these)

The Hollow Earth - Rudy Rucker (1990)

http://www.rudyrucker.com/thehollowearth/rucker_hollow_earth_cc_jan_17_2... (HTML)
(steampunk - see http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/2009/07/interview-with-rudy-rucker-... for an interview where Rudy Rucker discusses this novel)

Glimpses - Lewis Shiner (1993)

http://www.lewisshiner.com/liberation/glimpses.pdf (PDF)
(this one one the World Fantasy Award in 1994; Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs; more of his work for free at http://www.lewisshiner.com/liberation/index.htm)

Move Under Ground - Nick Mamatas (2004)

http://www.moveunderground.org/ (HTML)
(Cthulu mythos story written from the perspective of Jack Kerouac - got to be worth a look; Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5)

Accelerando - Charles Stross (2005)

http://manybooks.net/titles/strosscother05accelerando-txt.html
(Creative Commons)

Magic for Beginners - Kelly Link (2005)

http://smallbeerpress.com/books/2005/07/01/magic-for-beginners/
(recommended by China Miéville in http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/may/16/fiction.bestbooks; Small Beer Press are to be applauded for making some of their titles available under Creative Commons licences)

Items available in other countries

If you are lucky enough to live in the US, Canada or Australia, you have access to a few more gems:

Bright of the Sky - Kay Kenyon (2007)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B003N7MYQK
(available for free for Kindle in the US)

The Nose - Nikolai Gogol (1836)

http://www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0602381h.html (HTML)
(absurd classic; public domain in Australia)

The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany (1924)

http://www.mobileread.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=21611&d=123... (PRC)
(public domain in Canada)

Consider Her Ways - Frederick Philip Grove (1947)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0201151.txt (TEXT)
(public domain in Australia)

Collected Stories - H.P. Lovecraft (collected 2006)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600031.txt (TEXT)
(public domain in Australia - the same as the Kindle edition you can buy for 72p from Amazon in the UK...suspicious...)

Orlando - Virginia Woolf (1928)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200331.txt (TEXT)
(public domain in Australia)

The Ship of Ishtar - Abraham Merritt (1924)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601941.txt (TEXT)
(public domain in Australia; pulp classic)

The War with the Newts - Karel Čapek (1936)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601981h.html (HTML)
(public domain in Australia)

Last and First Men - Olaf Stapledon (1930)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601101.txt (TEXT)
(public domain in Australia)

Melmoth the Wanderer - Charles Robert Maturin (1820)

http://www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700551h.html (HTML)
(public domain in Australia)

The Haunted Woman - David Lindsay (1922)

http://www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0608401h.html (HTML)
(public domain in Australia; a "dark, metaphysical fantasy novel" according to Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Haunted_Woman)

Thunder on the Left - Christopher Morley (1925)

http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=19390
(public domain in Canada; not sf or fantasy, some consider it marginally a ghost story, but an odd, interesting and melodramatic read)

Books read 2011

Rather belatedly, here's a list of books I read in 2011, 77 in number. The ones with '*' are the ones I particularly enjoyed.

  • The Other City by Michal Ajvaz
  • The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson *
  • Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson
  • Satyrday by Steven Bauer
  • Talking Man by Terry Bisson
  • The Other Side of the Mountain by Michael Bernanos *
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
  • A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan
  • The 39 Steps by John Buchan
  • Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
  • The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington *
  • A Child Across the Sky by Jonathan Carroll
  • Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll
  • White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
  • The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll
  • The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
  • The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
  • The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
  • Sum by David Eagleman
  • The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
  • The Fahrenheit Twins by Michel Faber
  • Under the Skin by Michel Faber *
  • The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney *
  • The Unholy City by Charles G. Finney
  • The Ghosts of Manacle by Charles G. Finney
  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
  • The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
  • The Serpent by Jane Gaskell *
  • The Inheritors by William Golding
  • The Spire by William Golding
  • She by H. Rider Haggard
  • Shit My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
  • The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban
  • The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart *
  • Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
  • The Hermit by Eugene Ionesco
  • The Mortmere Stories by Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward
  • Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson *
  • Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson
  • The Gunslinger by Stephen King
  • The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
  • Wizard and Glass by Stephen King
  • The Waste Lands by Stephen King
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin *
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Galaxies by Barry Malzberg
  • The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  • The Box of Delights by John Masefield
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
  • Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip
  • The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip
  • The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt
  • In the Penny Arcade by Steven Millhauser
  • The Sword of the Dawn by Michael Moorcock
  • The Runestaff by Michael Moorcock
  • The Weird of the White Wolf by Michael Moorcock
  • The Steel Tsar by Michael Moorcock
  • Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore
  • Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley
  • Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
  • 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem ed. by Ruth Padel
  • Duke Cosimo by Akbar del Piombo
  • Stirk of Stirk by Peter Tinniswood
  • The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance
  • The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
  • Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White
  • The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams
  • A Haunted House and Other Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
  • Jog Rummage by Grahame Wright *
  • Howl's Moving Castle by Dianne Wynne Jones
  • Nines Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

Why you should read the Moomin books

I never read the Moomin books when I was growing up, though I vaguely remember seeing the TV series when I was a teenager. I suppose the cuddly characters indicated that there was nothing to see there, and I should move along.

But recently I have been tracking down and reading various books which are generally "Fantastical", mainly via 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels; Comet in Moominland was one mentioned there. I've just finished reading it to my daughter (7), and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's the first of the Moomin books intended for older readers (the first was more for younger children), and while slow-moving to start with, and in many ways lacking in "action", it is humorous, lovable and graceful, but with a deep, darkly-tinged heart.

Some reviews I've read, talking about this book and the later ones, discuss themes in depth; one of the most important being that difference should be tolerated. The characters are very different from each other: some nomadic, some home-loving; some open, some insular; some pessimistic, some optimistic etc. But they all rub along together, and want to stay together, tolerating each other's differences. I have to be honest that this didn't occur to me during reading, but it does make sense in retrospect. Though that's not why I'm urging you to read the book.

The story is pretty simple: through various omens, Moomintroll realises a comet may be about to crash into the planet. The comet appears in the sky, and he sets out (with various friends) to ask some astronomers (fairly useless, it turns out) when the impact will happen. Towards the end of the book, they are racing back home to Moomin valley to hide in a cave they think will keep them safe. The comet has boiled the water out of the ocean and hangs threateningly overhead; they are using stilts to move over the drained ocean bed. At that point, there is a beautiful passage which almost made me cry. It's because of passages like this that I urge you to read it, even if you're an adult:

All about them stretched the strange sea landscape, which had been covered by millions of tons of water since the beginning of the world.

"You know it's rather solemn to be down here," said the Snork. "We must be pretty near the deepest part of the ocean by now."

But when they reached the biggest chasm of all they didn't dare go down. The sides sloped steeply and the bottom was obscured in green gloom. Perhaps there was no bottom! Perhaps the biggest octopuses in the world lived down there, brooding in the slime; creatures that nobody had ever seen, far less imagined. But the Snork maiden gazed longingly at an enormous and beautiful shell that was poised on the very brink of the chasm. It was a lovely pale colour, only to be found in the depths of the sea where no light penetrates, and its dusky heart glowed temptingly. The shell sang softly to herself the age-old song of the sea.

"Oh!" sighed the Snork maiden. "I should like to live in that shell. I want to go inside and see who is whispering in there."

"It's only the sea," said Moomintroll. "Every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to a shell. But you mustn't go inside because it's a labyrinth and you may never come out."

So she was at last persuaded to go on, and they started to hurry, as dusk was falling, and they had not found anywhere to sleep. They could only see soft outlines of each other through the damp sea mist, and it was uncannily silent. There were none of the small sounds that liven up the evening on land: the pattering of small animal feet, leaves moving in the night breeze, the cry of a bird, of a stone dislodged by someone's foot.

A fire would never draw on that damp ground, and they dared not sleep amongst the unknown dangers that might be lurking about, so in the end they decided to pitch camp on a high pointed rock, which they could just reach by their stilts. They had to keep watch, so Moomintroll took the first and decided to take the Snork maiden's too, and while the others curled up tightly together and slept, he sat staring out over the desolate sea bottom. It was lit by the red glow of the comet, and shadows like black velvet lay across the sand.

Moomintroll thought how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her. Then he thought about how much he loved everything; the forest and the sea, the rain and the wind, the sunshine, the grass and the moss, and how impossible it would be to live without them all, and this made him feel very, very sad. But after a while he stopped worrying.

"Mamma will know what to do," he said to himself.

I love how the simplicity of the language in the penultimate paragraph reflects the simplicity of the sentiment: it's simple things which make life worth living, and dressing those simple things up in more flowery language detracts from their worth (it puts me in mind of the haiku of writers like Han-shan). I also like the description of the shell: a little sentimental, maybe, but hinting at our ambivalent relationship with the sea: the myth of the siren, our endless longing for the sea, but ultimately how unfathomable and dangerous it is.

The sequels apparently become darker in tone, though remaining life-affirming. I'll definitely be getting hold of them and reading them with my daughter.

Books read 2010

Last year I did pretty poorly on reading books, so this year I made an effort to read much more. I managed 62 books this year: the first year where I've read at least a book a week. My reading rate dropped off just before Christmas, due to the lure of new DVDs and the minor improvement to TV schedules around Christmas. But I will get back to reading more regularly this year.

Here's the list (for completists and myself only); the ones with asterisks are considered "classics" in the SF/fantasy fields (one of my personal goals this year was to get better acquainted with the classics in these fields); the ones in bold are the ones I really rate:

  1. Earth Abides - George R. Stewart *
  2. Man Plus - Frederick Pohl *
  3. Code - Charles Petzold
  4. The Brothel in Rosenstrasse - Michael Moorcock
  5. The City and the City - China Miéville
  6. The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke *
  7. The Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe *
  8. The Physiognomy - Jeffrey Ford - a random find in a local charity shop, but really an incredible read, very unusual fantasy but not the sword and sorcery kind
  9. Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman - I don't really get Neil Gaiman; don't get me wrong, this was quite engaging, just a bit workmanlike maybe; I think I need something a bit more unhinged, uncontrolled, and melodramatic
  10. Downward to the Earth - Robert Silverberg *
  11. Gloriana - Michael Moorcock
  12. Explorers of the New Century - Magnus Mills
  13. Memoranda - Jeffrey Ford
  14. Kéthani - Eric Brown
  15. The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica - John Calvin Batchelor - recommended as a classic by The Guardian 100 Best SF books (IIRC), but I found it very, very dull and skimmed the last quarter
  16. The Jewel in the Skull - Michael Moorcock - I'm not sure if I've read these before, and I am sure they're not as good as the Corum series, but they are bloody entertaining
  17. Thorns - Robert Silverberg
  18. The Family Trade - Charles Stross - a nice light read, but the second one didn't really live up to this one
  19. Gateway - Frederick Pohl * - this is a solid read, good characters, and an intriguing plotline
  20. The Hidden Family - Charles Stross
  21. A Case of Conscience - James Blish * - although this is supposedly a classic, it just didn't really hang together well for me, and I found it pretty hard work
  22. Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card * - I enjoyed this, but some part of me keeps reading his work from a Mormon/religious perspective; which is wrong of me (the Death of the Author and all that), but I can't help it, and it spoils it for me a bit
  23. The Mad God's Amulet - Michael Moorcock
  24. Motorman - David Ohle - I'm amazed I hadn't heard of this until this year, but I'd say this is a remarkable piece of surrealism
  25. The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth * - not as good as I'd been led to believe
  26. Grass - Sheri S. Tepper * - very eloquent, strongly plotted, and human
  27. The Gamesman - Barry Malzberg - almost always a pleasure
  28. Retribution Falls - Chris Wooding - another bit of fluff, but quite well done, though very reminiscent of Firefly (the TV series)
  29. The Embedding - Ian Watson *
  30. The Cave - Kate Mosse - dreadful
  31. I Am Legend - Richard Matheson * - a good read, and it prompted me to watch all three movie adaptations (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I am Legend - all of which completely miss the point, that the main scientist character becomes a legend among the newly-evolving "vampires"; by the end of the story he has become a relic of an old species, a legend)
  32. The Age of Sinatra - David Ohle
  33. Striped Holes - Damien Broderick - frothy and comic; I'd like to read more of his stuff
  34. Blood Music - Greg Bear * - gripping, great imagery, striking
  35. Midwich Cuckoos - John Wyndham *
  36. The Unreasoning Mask - Philip José Farmer * - couldn't really see why this is rated as a classic; A Feast Unknown is much better
  37. The Claw of the Conciliator - Gene Wolfe
  38. A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge * - excellent, great page turner, also quite moving
  39. House of Suns - Alastair Reynolds - quite tiresome; I did finish it, but it was a bit formulaic (you can kind of see the narrative struts holding it up)
  40. Travels in the Scriptorium - Paul Auster
  41. No Enemy But Time - Michael Bishop - confusing, but at least it had some guts
  42. Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban * - a remarkable feat of storytelling, but I struggled to concentrate
  43. Greybeard - Brian Aldiss * - this one is just lovely
  44. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror - H.P. Lovecraft - really enjoyed this, but got a bit bored when I tried to read his entire oeuvre
  45. Emphyrio - Jack Vance * - excellent fun, with a really satisfying conclusion
  46. The Man in The Maze - Robert Silverberg *
  47. Voice of Our Shadow - Jonathan Carroll * - I started reading his books for the first time this year, and found them quite addictive (I read 5 altogether); but they are so readable and fun they make me feel a bit suspicious; and they can get mildly repetitive
  48. Stolen Faces - Michael Bishop
  49. Grendel - John Gardner
  50. A Billion Days of Earth - Doris Piserchia - this is very unusual and has some fantastic off-the-wall ideas, but I lost track of what was happening a bit (my attention drifted)
  51. Kissing the Beehive - Jonathan Carroll
  52. Bones of the Moon - Jonathan Carroll
  53. Sarah Canary - Karen Joy Fowler
  54. Sleeping in Flame - Jonathan Carroll
  55. The Dying Earth - Jack Vance * - also really good fun
  56. 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories - ed. Isaac Asimov - a bit rubbish
  57. Carnacki, the Ghost Finder - William Hope Hodgson
  58. The Story of the Eye - Georges Bataille - I read this a few years back, and still found it quite shocking (and a bit tiresome) when I re-read it
  59. The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll
  60. Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees * - another supposed classic, but I found it a bit slow
  61. The Face in the Frost - John Bellairs - a light, quick fantasy quest narrative; the two central wizard characters are excellent
  62. The House on the Borderland - William Hope Hodgson * - very odd, but well worth reading, with a particularly excellent "house under siege from the supernatural" sequence; proto-fantasy with a sort of cosmic horror element; an influence on Lovecraft

This year I plan to read more Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and Jonathan Carroll, as well as more of the "classics", particularly older works of The Fantastic I have on my Kindle (stuff like Charles Williams, H. Rider Haggard, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald).

I've also been attempting to put together some ideas for short stories, or maybe even interactive fiction. Something might come of that too. Probably not, though.

Book-related nuggets

I keep thinking about writing something here, but the problem is once I get started, that's a whole evening gone, waffling.

In particular, I've been thinking about books a lot. So here are some book-related nuggets. It all goes a bit Victor Meldrew by the end, I warn you now.

Space operas I've read

I recently read Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep alongside Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns. Both are galaxy-spanning space opera, both full of artificial intelligences, alien races, and dogfights in space. Both highly entertaining. But Vinge's book was written about 20 years before Reynolds', and it's pretty obvious Reynolds is a big fan of Vinge. Not to the point of copying, but the plotlines of both share similarities (humans caught up in a battle involving AI systems/races which have reached god-like power). And Vinge is a much, much better writer: his characters are more sympathetic, his scenery more memorable, his aliens more interesting, and his narrative pace tighter and more dramatic. So if you want some space opera, I'd go for Vinge first, and Reynolds second.

I might read Jack Vance soon, as a brief look at one of his books (The Star King) suggests Vinge was inspired by his work (e.g. both use the term The Beyond to refer to the far reaches of the galaxy)...

Hay-on-Wye visit

I visited Hay on Wye with my family for a couple of days last week. We've made this an annual pilgrimage, as we all love going there so much. I found a lot of good books; in particular, Richard Booth's bookshop was a fantastic source of unusual sf: see the town shop catalogue and castle bookshop catalogue for a fraction of the stock.

I ended up buying:

  • China Mountain Zhang - Maureen F. McHugh
  • Greybeard - Brian Aldiss
  • Underlay - Barry Malzberg
  • Galaxies - Barry Malzberg
  • The Last Transaction - Barry Malzberg
  • The Opiuchi Hotline - John Varley
  • The Snow Queen - Joan D. Vinge
  • The Peace War - Vernor Vinge
  • The Humanoids - Jack Williamson
  • Mockingbird - Walter Tevis
  • Bring the Jubilee - Ward Moore
  • Walk to the End of the World - Suzy McKee Charnas
  • The Breaking of Northwall - Paul O. Williams
  • Gray Matters - William Hjortsberg
  • Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban
  • Star King - Jack Vance
  • Stolen Faces - Michael Bishop
  • A Mirror for Observers - Edgar Pangborn
  • Other Days, Other Eyes - Bob Shaw

Each book cost me £2 to £2.50: cheaper than Amazon marketplace, but not as cheap as I would have liked. I think I'm lucky because sf books are still in a bit of a ghetto; other types of paperback seem a bit overpriced (a symptom of the tourist popularity of the place). I love going there, but my best finds are still when I get hold of an unusual 1960s/1970s paperback for 30p in a small charity shop.

My tactic when visiting is to make a list of specific books to look for: we have about 3-4 hours browsing time, and there are just too many books to look at all of them. On this occasion, I was aiming to find a few "classics" (Moore, Varley, Pangborn, Shaw), interesting books by authors I've recently discovered (Vernor Vinge, Michael Bishop), and books by authors I always look out for (Malzberg - often tricky to find, as I'm not sure all his books made it to publication in Europe). I had a list of about 50 authors/books, but passed up on a few I found because the book wasn't in particularly good condition, or it didn't look so good in the flesh, or were too expensive.

Madeleine chose 17 books (we had to limit her to 1 or 2 per shop, as she kept gathering piles of half a dozen or more - children's books are reasonably priced, though the Children's Bookshop is a rip-off with common paperbacks at £3); Joel got 4 picture books (he mainly wanted to walk around the shops, rather than look at books); and Nicola got about 5 (her favourite shop there is Murder and Mayhem).

Anyhow, now I've got so many great books to read, I don't know where to start.

On Bookmooch

Bookmooch is a great little site: basically you list books you want to give away, and books you'd like to acquire. Each time you give a book away, you get points; each time you acquire a book, you spend points (so no money changes hands). You get 3 points for sending abroad, 1 point for sending to your own country; asking for a book from your own country costs 1 point; asking for a book internationally costs 2 points. I've exchanged quite a few books on there. But a few recent experiences have soured it for me:

  • People giving away bookcrossing books
    I like the idea of bookcrossing.com very much, but don't like it when people take bookcrossing books and put them onto bookmooch without mentioning it. bookcrossing books are intended to be given away after they've been read; I don't mooch books off bookmooch to give them away again, necessarily: it might be that I want to keep the book after I've read it (I like collecting books). I'd feel guilty if I got hold of a bookcrossing book via bookmooch and kept it. I recently got a bookcrossing book unintentionally off bookmooch, so now I've read it I'm going to have to leave it somewhere for someone else to pick up.
  • People refusing to send mooches internationally
    People on bookmooch have the option not to send internationally, or to have you ask first to see if they'll agree to send internationally. While in principle I understand this (from what US citizens tell me, postage internationally is exorbitant; in the UK I've found it to be fine), it is still galling to see books you want but are unable to get because the person won't send internationally. Even more galling if you ask them to send internationally and they say "No". This is really an issue with bookmooch: it shouldn't show books you can't mooch because the person won't send internationally.
  • People sending books in terrible condition
    I got one book off bookmooch which had some kind of toxic sticky gunk on its cover. It's so bad I can't put it next to another book on my shelf. I'm reading it at the moment, taking care not to put it down on top of any other books after each reading session. Once I've read it I'm going to have to bin it, as I'd be ashamed to give it to anyone else.
    I don't mind dog ears, crumpled spines, bent pages, limited water damage etc.; but a cover which glues itself to other books goes beyond acceptable.
  • Poor user experience
    The bookmooch website really doesn't lend itself to regular use, and does a poor job of tracking what tasks are pending and what you've done. One example: if you ask someone to send internationally, there's no record of this on the site: you have to keep the email to remind you. But despite that, you can mooch the book anyway, before the person you asked has responded (the system should block until the person agrees to send internationally, but doesn't for some reason). Then add to that the fact that reservations expire after a week, even if the person doesn't respond to your request within that time. So you can be in a situation where you've asked someone to send internationally, they haven't responded, and your reservation is about to expire. What to do? I tend to mooch it anyway, explaining why, and saying they can cancel if they wish.
    Another example is the wishlist. It defaults to showing you just the books you've wishlisted, and not related editions. You can show related editions if you want, but you have to click. Each moochable book has a link next to it; but if a related edition is moochable, there's no link. What you really need is a list of "moochable items which are on my wishlist or related to my wishlist" (this is roughly what the RSS feed supplies), with a link for each.
    Also, there are more general issues, like the terrible search engine, which as well as returning very poor results is also horribly slow; and the abysmal HTML, resembling something produced by Microsoft FrontPage sometime around 2000, bloated and nigh on impossible to screen scrape.
    (I know I could do better (I spent two years working on Prism after all), which is, I think, what makes it so frustrating to use.)

All in all, while it worked out well for a while and I got some good books out of it, I'd actually rather spend £3 on Amazon to get the books I want, rather than go through the hassle of using bookmooch. Shame. I'll leave my wishlist on there, but I'm not going to put anything in my inventory for the time being.

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