Saturday, 18 February 2012

What makes you choose a book?

Buying a book is a bit like buying an orange. You don’t really know what’s in it until you get it home and peel off the cover. You can see the skin of course and, in this creaky analogy, that includes the blurb on the back of the book. And you can sample a book if you are standing in that threatened establishment – the bookshop - or even download a sample chapter if you are considering an eBook. Nonetheless, you have to burrow pretty deeply into a book before you’re sure of it. Like an orange with a rotten segment - a bad ending could spoil the experience.
I was a science fiction fan as a teenager and peaked at a book a day until I moved on (that’s peaked with an ‘a’ by the way). I can’t remember, but I guess I started with the big names: Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and then branched out. I soon had a favourite publisher – Gollanz. How I loved those bright yellow covers and, you know, they never, ever had a picture on them. I mostly borrowed books from the library though I did buy some. Finding new authors was easy: I simply went to the SF section and leafed through the selection.
Now my fiction reading is less specific: I like a good novel. My favourite writers from past and present include: Graham Greene, George Orwell, John Fowles and Douglas Kennedy. However, I know that there are good authors out there who are not necessarily being pushed by the big publishers. So how do I find them?
Buying a book is a two-pronged investment: first you have to buy it, and then you have to spend a lot of time reading it – even if it turns out to be a dud. I suppose most readers are conservative: only reading authors they have heard of, or books from the Booker shortlist, or stuff reviewed in the Times. Perhaps the most powerful route is through recommendations from a friend or colleague.
I bought a Kindle book by accident recently. Pressed the ‘Buy now with I-click’ rather than the title and ended up with Nuptials for Sale by someone called Virginia Jewel. Not my sort of thing, but it was all right – a bit raw perhaps. It only cost me £2.50 so no great loss. And you never know – a random click of the ‘buy it now’ button might lead to an undiscovered work of genius, or not.
‘Course I am biased in this. All authors want readers to choose their books and most are in a state of depression because no one does. Nonetheless, I am really interested: how do you choose the books that you read?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Tourism, Ants and Hellstrom's Hive

Do you like ants? My father did. He spent a period making little plaster containers with sliding glass tops. In these he encouraged ants to go about their business and watched them at it. My mother raised her eyes a lot during this time: indulgent but slightly embarrassed and slightly concerned, I think. Anyway, the fad declined and he went on to bees.
A few weeks ago I attended a lecture by Tim King. I have his card in front of me as I type. It’s a plain visiting card except for one thing: a very realistic picture of a brown ant alongside his address. He gave a fascinating lecture in which he points out that ants have been about for a long time – much longer than us. He also claims that they, as a community, are highly intelligent (though I wasn’t entirely convinced by this).
Whilst travelling in Turkey I became interested in ants. They have big ones and small ones there and they worked together in teams to clear up the crumbs that fell as I ate my lunch in lonely, forgotten places. This, and the strange underground cities that exist in that country, moved me to write a short story called The Tourist Touch. It’s about the corrupting effect of tourism on a village that lies above an underground city and is paralleled by observation of the cold reaction within a nearby ant colony. It is part of my collection of stories called Turkey Trove.
At the end of Tim King’s talk I went to the front and told him about my story since it seemed relevant to his lecture. We exchanged cards and later I emailed the story to him. He liked it and suggested a few, mostly welcomed, changes. He also recommended that I read Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert (you remember him, he wrote all those Dune books). So I downloaded it onto my Kindle for £4.99 (more expensive than the paperback!)
I enjoyed it. Frank Herbert is a well-respected sci-fi writer and it shows. The book was a bit slow to start - scene setting perhaps - then becomes rather exciting. The plot is simple. For years a group of people in America have been living like ants. Hellstrom is their current leader and they have created a wondrous secret hive that extends some mile or so below ground and contains thousands of specialised people: workers, breeders, thinkers, organisers and so on. Like the insect colonies that they admire they have evolved a community where loyalty to the hive transcends individualism. In the story snoopers from a US government agency discover them and the whole thing unwinds from there. I will say no more because you may want to read it sometime and I could spoil the experience.
The world that Frank Herbert created in the hive is interesting and thought provoking. I found my sympathies edging towards its inhabitants rather than the agents and this may be deliberate since the author portrays the agency as a community torn by ambition, suspicion and intrigue. Still it made me think and that’s one of the things I want from a good book.