Books, Close Encounters Book Club

A Clash of Kings – George R. R. Martin

First Wednesday of the month means book club meeting time! For our September meet, so we read this through August, we covered the second of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, A Clash of Kings.

I’m going to start by saying that I enjoyed this one more than the first book in the series, I think I read the first book quicker, but then that one didn’t have the school summer holidays getting in the way of my reading. A Game of Thrones was, for me anyway, more about setting the world within the tale takes place, establishing its cast of characters and driving home their motivations and methods of achieving those. A Clash of Kings is, I think, where things really start moving.

Another reason I preferred it was because its not half as pervy as A Game of Thrones. This is what I had to say about this particular topic back in July

“Let’s get this out of the way early, its a bit pervy. I know that things were very different in the kind of era that this was set, but this is a fantasy piece of work, its not set in any kind of reality, so the attention to detail regarding the physical developments and sexual treatments of some of the female characters were really uncomfortable to read. Also, it doesnt even really feel like Martin was writing this stuff because “thats how it would have been”, the writing comes across like he’s enjoying writing about these young girls, Daenerys in particular. The strong focus on how Daenerys ‘ relationship with Khal Drogo develops (somehow) from him raping her (because lets not beat around the bush, thats what it was) to her consenting and falling in love with him feels voyeuristic and I dreaded Daenerys ‘ chapters for that reason.”

In comparison to that first book there was very little sex, I think there’s only really Tyrion with Shae, also some of Theon’s chapters where sex is written about and its done in a much more adult and less voyeuristic manner. Danaerys still has moments of being partially undressed and there’s alot of discussion about Cercei’s incestuous relationships, but it all feels like consenting and natural within the world Martin has created. There’s an obvious focus on Sansa Stark reaching womanhood and what that would mean for her, but again, it doesn’t feel wrong when she is having those thoughts and the subsequent conversations about Joffrey that she has with Cersei, in fact Martin does an excellent job of portraying the dread that Sansa feels.

On the subject of Sansa, I really didn’t like her in A Game of Thrones, but she grew on me a little in A Clash of Kings. She was still a little naive, but she’d also begun to wake up to the world that she was living in and how everything wasn’t all songs, flowers and noble Knights, I think that throughout the book she’s the one character that showed the most growth and I began to really feel for her plight and the relief she felt when Joffrey accepted the offer of marrying Margaery Tyrell, even if, as it turns out, that doesn’t mean that Joffrey is done with her just yet.

In comparison, I felt like a lot of Catelyn Stark’s chapters dragged the pace of the story down. Maybe this was on purpose, after all she’s the only one that has any sort of travel in her chapters, Danaerys goes to a couple of different locations, and Davos’ chapters mention that he has travelled to different places too, but we don’t learn of the journey between them other than in passing. Catelyn on the other hand, spends a lot of time on the road but its only really the time she spends with either of the Baratheon’s where the story grabs the reader. I think this was a decision that Martin made on purpose, elsewhere things seemed to move at a break neck speed, with the characters all having differing information on what was going on in Westeros, Catelyn seemed to be the glue that stuck it all together, not to mention her and Brienne were the only ones to witness Renlys death, but we’re witnessing a woman who is struck with grief over the family she has lost, whilst everybody else is busy making war with each other.

Lastly, we finally get to witness a proper battle. Martin seemed to skirt around these events in A Game of Thrones, giving us reports from characters that weren’t on the front lines. By the time we reach the final third of this book we’ve seen Jon involved in a couple of skirmishes and the Baratheon’s be on the verge of battle, though that is waved away by Melisandre’s actions, but we get to the Battle of Blackwater Bay and get to witness not only Tyrion (who was the only character to see action in A Game of Thrones) but Davos take up arms and get into the fighting which is told with an excellent amount of intensity and brutality that allows you really picture the battle at hand and the confusing nature of such a fight.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Neuromancer – William Gibson

Yay, its book club meeting time.

July’s book was William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, I book that I’d heard was a big part of the initial cyberpunk movement, a genre that I’ve not read any fiction from but am a huge fan of films such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner and The Matrix. Alot of distopian literature released since its original publication can be linked back to it too I suppose.

So Neuromancer, for those that haven’t read it, is all about a hacker named Chase, who has turned to a life of hustling in Chiba City, Japan, in order to make enough money to eat and spend the night in a “coffin hotel” which, to me, sound alot like the capsule/pod hotel’s that you can find in Japan, but with a few more bells and whistles like magnetic locks and some sort of computer terminal. Chase isn’t able to access the Global Computer Network due to a microtoxyn that he was implanted with after a job went bad, so is now unable to hack. However, he is approached to do a job, with the reward being that he’ll have the microtoxyn removed (thus allowing him to do the job in the first place). A woman called Molly is also employed to do certain aspects of the job, those being more physical oriented in contrast to Chase’s work in Cyberspace, and their employer is a man called Armitage. However, Chase and Molly don’t really know what Armitage is up to, but they begin to suspect something, and as such the book becomes not just a tale of this heist like job they’ve been employed to do, but also their investigation into who Armitage is and what he really wants.

Now, all that there, sounds excellent, but if I’m honest, I really struggled with Neuromancer. I found its language difficult to penetrate and there was so many different terms, characters and locations and everything moves at such a break neck pace that I found myself scrabbling to remember what had happened, to whom and where, and its not really until the final chapters that I felt the whole picture began to click. It was also difficult to escape the influences its had elsewhere, there’s the obvious names such when they discuss Cyberspace or The Matrix, which are both terms that have been adopted elsewhere in our culture, but also with how events pan out it felt like I was watching a few different films all at once, with drug references, computer terminology and military speak all being thrown around, it came as a surprise, but also a relief that when Chase and Molly team up with a Rastafarian pilot, that I began to understand things a little better, and I think as whole the story would have been easier to follow if the central character wasn’t so deeply entangled within the world of being a “Console Cowboy” and being a part of that underworld as the language being used was so far away from what most people used it, as I’ve said, often got confusing.

Thats not to say I didn’t enjoy Neuromancer, I absolutely loved it, and I can actually see me reading through it again at some point in the future (which I rarely manage to do with books) with a better understanding of what the cast are talking about. I think if I did do that I may pick up on some of its more deeper themes.

What did stand out strongly though is the American view of Japan. Now, I’m writing this after reading the first of four volumes of Shigeru Mizuki’s “Showa” which details Japan’s history from the early 20th Century and eventually finishes in the late 1980s, though the volume I’ve finishes reading finishes just before the Second World War. Anyway, theres this view that Japan went from being the nation who was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour, who it was felt were still in a feudal period, to suddenly, in the 1980s being this tech supergiant, suddenly everything worth having was coming from an Japanese electronics company and that seems to have skewed the American view of Japan somewhat, so when you read through Neuromancer, its difficult not to read the names and places being used, but see a more grimey, American style setting too, much like that we see in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

There’s a very modern, multi-cultural feel to Neuromancer too, which isn’t just brought about by the racial differences in the characters but by the products they use. Items aren’t really referred to by their object name, instead Gibson prefers to use their brand name, much like we do now, so rather than describing a car, we’re told the characters are in a Citroen or a Mercedes, which are obviously devices that will generate specific types of cars in the readers mind, likewise cigarettes are named by their brand, I think one of the brands mentioned is Gauloises, I may be wrong, but it shows the capitalist world the characters inhabit and ties in to the belief from the 20th Century that you could tell a man by what he drank or smoked.

This sort of thing carries on throughout, and its difficult at times to know what was a real world brand and what wasn’t, especially roughly 35 years on from its original publication.

So, to close, I adored my time with Neuromancer, it felt like work at times, but that not necessarily a bad thing, some times a book requires some effort on the readers part for it to really get under the readers skin, and it gave me a hankering to watch Akira, Ghost in the Shell, both Blade Runner movies and The Matrix again


A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin

I was apprehensive about starting A Game of Thrones, I’ve never really gotten on with any Fantasy stories I’ve tried and whilst I’ve seen the show and enjoyed that, the books sitting there on the shelf were really rather intimidating and the show hadnt really inspired me to pick them up before and start reading. I was expecting that I’d be counting down the pages hoping that I’d finish in time for our meet up to discuss it, but I actually finished a few days shy of a week early (although admitedly I did start a week prior to the last meeting as I’d gotten ahead of myself) and quite enjoyed it, I’m actually looking forward to reading the next book through August, although I’m glad for the break between! I certainly couldn’t mainline them like my other half has the audiobooks, shes on the last one of the main series thats been written and has got to that stage in the same time its taken me to read just the one book!

My initial impressions are that the show sticks fairly closely to this first book, or at least what I remember of the key events in the first season stick fairly close to the events of the book, although I haven’t watched the first season through for a couple of years now so I could be wrong on that.

Let’s get this out of the way early, its a bit pervy. I know that things were very different in the kind of era that this was set, but this is a fantasy piece of work, its not set in any kind of reality, so the attention to detail regarding the physical developments and sexual treatments of some of the female characters were really uncomfortable to read. Also, it doesnt even really feel like Martin was writing this stuff because “thats how it would have been”, the writing comes across like he’s enjoying writing about these young girls, Daenerys in particular. The strong focus on how Daenerys ‘ relationship with Khal Drogo develops (somehow) from him raping her (because lets not beat around the bush, thats what it was) to her consenting and falling in love with him feels voyeuristic and I dreaded Daenerys ‘ chapters for that reason.

Another character I couldn’t get on with, but for very different reasons (and Danaerys’ weren’t strictly her fault) was Sansa. I know she’s been brought up with the equivalent of fairy tales in her head and been raised to be a lady, but shes a lady of the North and thus shouldn’t be so absolutely fucking naive all the god damned fucking time. Pretty much everything that goes wrong throughout the entire book (with maybe the exception of what started it all: Bran being pushed by Jaime) has Sansa’s naivety at its origins. Every time the girl opens her mouth I wanted her to shut up as she was always getting somebody, or to be more accurate, her family, into trouble. Losing Lady was unfair, I’ll agree to that but any body else would have seen Joffrey for who he was when faced with the situation with Arya and the baker boy. But time and again she fell foul of Cersey’s ability to scheme and turn things to her advantage, but then I can hardly blame her. Idiocy seems to be in the blood of the Starks.

The problem here is, I know alot of what happens to some of these characters. I know theres differences between the books and the show and that some characters and events are omitted from the latter for a variety of reasons so I’m really looking forward to seeing how things develop. I have to say, and I know this is heresy, but I was never a fan of Daenerys . In the show she has acts holier than thou even though, in my opinion, her decisions dont reflect how she see’s herself nor how others treat her. I’m wondering if alot of the love she receives from fans is down to who she is within the story, but we’ll have to wait and see for now.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Leviathan Wakes – James S. A. Corey

May’s Close Encounters Books Without Pictures Book Club book was Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey which is the first volume in the The Expanse series that is also an Amazon Prime Video show. I’ve not watched anything of the show prior to starting the book and only watched half the first episode since (my other half had to take a phone call during it so we shelved it and haven’t gone back yet as we’ve gone on a true crime binge since). It’s the first proper sci-fi we’ve read since I joined the group, Day of the Triffids is sort of sci-fi but not SPACE SCI-FI! So I was genuinely looking forward to starting it and ended up blasting through it. I’m not a particularly fast reader but I finished Leviathan Wakes within a couple of weeks rather than having to cram read before we met again.

The Authors (as its a team of two writers (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) writing under a pseudonym) have jumped head on into bringing us a space opera story that not only fits well within the sci-fi genre but also borrows horror elements too. It was hard not to think of both Ridley Scott’s Alien, Visceral Games’ Dead Space, Paul W S. Anderson’s Event Horizon and a whole host of other space set movies and games, there was also a sprinkling of Red Dwarf in the back of my mind as I read it. Mostly because I kept picturing James Holden as Captain Hollister even though Abraham/Franck’s descriptions do not tally with the image in my mind, nor do the characters actions and, with all due respect to Mac McDonald, the rather attractive Steven Strait (who is a more believable depiction of Holden) was the furthest thing from my mind.

Unlike a lot of tales, I don’t think Abraham/Franck were trying to apply any sort of moralistic story to Leviathan Wakes, unlike the aforementioned Day of the Triffids which looked at survival, communities and how people would behave in the situation depicted in that book, Leviathan Wakes is most definetly a TV Space set action based drama in the vein of something like the earlier seasons of the Battlestar Galactica remake. Initially it all starts with a very horror-movie like feel, with a girl being trapped in a locker after her ship was boarded and not knowing whats happened to her crew mates and then it brings in some body horror moments with the crew being amalgamated into a bionic mass that has taken over (if I remember correctly) the ships drive room. After that we’re thrown into space battles and a pretty cool, almost Blade Runner-esque (more Ridley Scott then) detective drama as the action switches between Captain Holden and Detective Miller before bringing back the horror elements and finally switching to political drama and Star Wars style space combat (minus any Jedi shtick, which if it went down that route would have made the book swing heavily towards Ready Player One territory which wouldn’t have been a good thing).

Abraham/Franck have stated they wanted to go for a setting that sits somewhere between the normal sci-fi stories. Man isn’t on the verge of exploring the stars, nor has it colonized the galaxy, but it has managed to set up homes on Mars and amongst the asteroid belts in between, using water harvested from said asteroids for the inhabitants of Mars and the Belter colonoies to survive on. They try, and mostly succeed, to explore territorial, political and evolutional differences between the three distinct colonies and how relations between the three can easily break down due to one incident. The series has been likened to A Game of Thrones (which we’re reading for June and discussing at the start of July) for this reason (and also because Franck is George R R Martin’s assistant) but (and thus far I can only compare it to the TV adaption of GoT) it’s not quite as political as Martin’s works as the two characters it focuses on are very different and wield very little political power (although Holden has a few bargaining chips up his sleeve as the plot develops).

I had a feeling I would enjoy Leviathan Wakes, so I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I fully intend on trying to read other books in the series (Caliban’s War is already on my To Read pile after I found it for 50p in a charity shop) and watching the show, the biggest thing I enjoyed about it was its attention to detail, I loved all the talk about gravity thrust and the quieter moments upon the Rocinante, which its revealed late on is named after Don Quixote’s horse, but I also discovered that Prog Rock band Rush wrote two song’s telling the story of a space pilot who had a ship with the same name who is dragged into a black hole thats worth a listen to (even if the two songs combined weigh in at 25 minutes), if you really want to hear them, I’ve posted them below.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Red Earth and Pouring Rain – Vikram Chandra

Aprils Close Encounters “Books Without Pictures” book was Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain, on its surface, is the tale of a young Indian man, Aphay, who having returned to India from America, shoots a monkey who regularly visits his parental home for food, however, a spirit is awoken within the monkey as it is nursed back to health by Aphay’s parents, it is the spirit of Sanjay Parashar a poet who has to bargain with the Gods to extend his life, his payment? To tell a story and keep Lord Yama at bay.

His story is told throughout the book, which jumps back and forth over a couple of centuries covering everything from pre-English rule Hindustan, prior to Sanjay’s birth, the key figures at that time, both real and fictional, through his birth alongside his “brothers” Sikander and Chotto through to Aphay’s time studying in America, his falling in love but ultimately in him returning home and his fateful conflict with a white monkey who had stolen his jeans from the washing line.

This is over simplifying the tale that is told within the pages of Chandra’s writings, even referring to it as a “tale” is to also over simplify things, as Red Earth and Pouring Rain is a whole bunch of tales with a wide variety of key characters and voices all told within an amalgamation of tales themselves. We are told of the Gods, of war, heroes and villains, love, death and everything in between and in the hands of a lesser author it could all have so easily have gone awry. That’s not to say that Red Earth and Pouring Rain isn’t a challenging read, it can be difficult to keep up with who is who and what has happened to each of the characters and at what point in history certain events take place. I also felt I may have had more of a grasp of things if I’d had more of an education in regards to India, its history and the religious upbringings of its people, as thing stand we’re not even taught about England’s involvement in the area (and it wasn’t until the recent episode of Doctor Who that I knew anything of the Partition of India for example) so reading this has been an eye opener really.

I’ve struggled to take much more from the it really, I’m not sure if its trying to say anything in particular, and again, I can’t help but thinking that my very white working class upbringing has played its hand there, not that that excuses my ignorance, but I’m definitely glad that Red Earth and Pouring Rain came up as otherwise I wouldn’t have known is existence, let alone read it, as its most definetly outside of the kind of book I’d normally pick up and read.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere was the Close Encounters “Books Without Pictures” book club for March-April (as in we read it in March, meet in April). The meeting was originally scheduled for April 3, but had to be re-scheduled due to illness. So, we’re were going to meet tonight, April 10th, but I’ve been unable to go for family reasons. Even so, heres some of my thoughts on Neverwhere.

I’ll start by saying that, despite being by Gaiman, Neverwhere didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I mean, I definetly enjoyed it, but I took very little away from it, certainly less so than I did Day of the Triffids. My most prevalent thoughts (and bear in mind I finished this over two weeks ago now) were that I really liked Gaimans use of locations. Knightsbridge becoming “Nights Bridge” and somewhere to fear is the main example I can think of right now. I found that whole aspect genuinely fun, likewise I enjoyed the use of abandoned places basically becoming “London Below” as there is so much of our capital that appears on those “Forgotten Cities” style shows that Gaiman populating forgotten Underground stations or the sewer system below the city made them feel alive and vivid. Admitedly, as someone who’s only really been to St Pancras, a few underground stations and then some of the touristy spots like Harrods or the Natural History Museum, some of the places I just know by their name so maybe his use of them is lost on me a little, but yeah, I found that really fun.

The other aspect that really stood out was that his female characters were pretty strong. Obviously there’s Hunter, the legendary bodyguard, but even Door is capable and her soft nature and small stature belies her strong will and moral sensibilities. She’s the one character that ever shows Richard any remorse for the situation he has been dragged into and ultimately its her own strength of character that redeems the entire situation and fools Islington.

I’d have liked to get to know the Marquis more, I know Gaiman wrote an additional short story but I’ve not had opportunity to read that, I’m not even sure if its in the edition of the book that I have (I’ve leant it to one of the other members of the book club, so will check when he’s finished with it and I see him again). Likewise I really liked Old Bailey but we didn’t get half as much time with him as I’d have liked.

For next month the group has voted on “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” by Vikram Chandra, I’ve never heard of this book nor the author before and a quick look at its synopsis makes it sound really interesting and totally different to what I’d normally read: Combining Indian myths, epic history, and the story of three college kids in search of America, a narrative includes the monkey’s story of an Indian poet and warrior and an American road novel of college students driving cross-country.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

I recently joined a book club being run at my local comic books store (Close Encounters in Bedford) and our read for February (for our meeting on 6th March) was Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. Before I continue, this is the first time I’ve read it and I’ve never seen either the recentish movie nor the BBC TV series adaptations

Written in 1951, Day of the Triffids is a War of the Worlds-esque tale of a mans survival in a post-apocalyptic world that has become over-run by the titular Triffids, an “unnatural” plant that thrives after the majority of Britains (and possibly the Worlds) population are blinded by what is believed to be a meteor shower.

The vast majority of Day of the Triffids follows Bill Masen as he learns to adapt to the world he wakes up to whilst in Hospital, unlike most of the people around him he wasn’t blinded when the meteor shower as his eyes had been bandaged after he had received a whipping poisonous sting from a Triffid whilst cultivating them and thus finds initial survival to be much easier. We meet other characters along the way, most of whom have key roles throughout but it is ultimately his search for Josella that drives much of the story until he eventually finds her and events become more diary like until the book ends in what I felt was rather abruptly.

Its due to this ending that I ultimately found Wyndhams tale to be rather frustrating, I wanted to know more about the Triffids and the meteor shower and whether the two were linked or not. I wanted to know more about the new community on the Isle of Wight that is briefly mentioned near the end of the book. I understand that thats not really what Wyndham was trying to do here, he was sticking a fairly ordinary guy into a situation that tests him but unfortunately I don’t think it really quite works, it never really feels like Masen is ever in any real danger and his functionality means any obstacle is easily solved, he takes to being a leader rather naturally and whilst his beliefs regarding the threat of the Triffids are called into question by one individual early on, his methods and opinions are never really challenged beyond that.

What is interesting though is seeing how heavily other creations have been influenced by Day of the Triffids. The one that kept coming to mind was the TV adaptation of Robert Kirkmans The Walking Dead. In both there’s the relentless threat of unthinking flesh eating masses, in both the protagonist wakes up in hospital unaware of how the world around him has changed, in both people rally around said protagonist and their leadership is faultless (well, mostly in The Walking Dead), in both a distant group has a helicopter and there are different factions that have different approaches to surviving in the modern world.

Lastly, and this for me is the most difficult point to put across, but I think Day of the Triffids is a commentary on post-war immigration in Britain. Whilst Wyndham never really points out the appearance of any of the characters (as far as I recall anyway) I always pictured them as white but that may be my own bias showing. I couldn’t help getting the impression that the Triffids were supposed to be the immigrants, especially once the theory that they were communicating with each other was established, their growing numbers would seem to fit with that constant fear that so many people unfortunately have that they’re being over run by people that aren’t their own.