Category Archives: Books

Fisch wird Mensch. Mensch wird Fisch! Mörder!

A Middle-Aged Man Returns to Viriconium

Vrico. Pastel City. The City, and the city, and city …of dreams.

I first came here as a young man. Seventeen. Through a portal in one of those London termini, I’d almost swear it was St Pancras. The old one of tunnels, caves, and condensation in huge waiting rooms. Except there was a bookshop, selling sci-fi.

Simon said “M John Harrison: he’s friends with Michael Moorcock. Or something.” I bought the book, we boarded a train. We crossed the sea to Amsterdam.

Uroconium. The City on the edge of the Western Sea. Canals, and pools, and streets with strange, familiar names. Genever in coffee shops and women at windows. Scarlet, black, neon. A city that wears its heart on its sleeve, but plays cards close to its chest.

I dreamt so many dreams, those seven Viriconium Nights.
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Second-Hand Time

When I was small, I owned a plain-covered hardback book of Russian folk-tales. It was my most terrifying possession. It scared me, just to be in the same room as this collection of child-eating stepmothers, Baba Yagas, and terrors beyond imagination.

Second-Hand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich is that book, grown up. Alexievich transcribes the words of dozens of Russian and former-Soviet citizens she has interviewed. The result is a complex tapestry, with moments of beauty and joy, but overwhelmingly it tells of terror and torture and oppression and regret, played out over a scale of entire lifetimes. It is the most terrifying thing I have ever read.
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Reading Fast and Slow

I’m currently reading a book by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, called Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman has been something of a hero of mine for over twenty years, since I first came across his work during my psychlogy degree at Bristol University. The papers that he authored (along with Amos Tversky) on heuristics and biases provide a fascinating and ever-relevant insight into how humans make simple and predictable mistakes because of the way that their minds work; and, again because of the nature of human cognition, we generally don’t realise when we have made these errors of judgement; we will defend our incorrect way of seeing things because we are quite simply blind to our own biases.

Kahneman’s book is, as the title hints, about two types of thinking: fast, or “System 1″, happens automatically and effectively without any effort on our own part: if I ask you what the capital of France is, you don’t have to dig deep within your mind to pull out an answer (in fact, you will find that it requires more effort not to think of Paris). Slow, or “System 2″ thinking, requires conscious effort, to fetch pieces of knowledge and hold them in your mind while you perform operations upon them. For example, if I asked you to estimate the distance between the capitals of France and Germany then you would probably conjure up a mental map of Europe, locate those two cities on it, and hold all of this in your mind while you make a guess at the distance between them.

There is much evidence that we are “lazy” thinkers, with limited mental energy available to us, and if we can avoid using System 2 thinking then we will do so. As we get better at performing any task – for example riding a bike – the steps required to do so are packaged up in a way that makes them accessible to System 1 thinking, and we become able to perform that task “without thinking”, or at least without being conscious of thinking.

…and this got me thinking. On the back of the book is a quote from Richard Thaler: “Buy it fast. Read it slowly”. Well, that stuck in my mind, and I did make an effort to read the book slowly, to linger and let its revelations sink in. But, as with almost any book I read nowadays, from time-to-time I found myself reaching the end of a paragraph with scarcely any idea of what I had just read. So I had to go back and re-read it, forcing myself to slow down and pay attention. And this is when my learnings from the book imposed themselves on my experience of reading the book: I realised that I had slipped between System 2 reading (slow, methodical, effortful and attentive) and System 1 reading (speedily going through the motions of regognising each word, but without that same experience of the meaning sinking in). This happens to me so much recently that I often wonder what has happened to my reading ability: I’m sure reading never used to be this difficult or unproductive when I was younger. But Kahneman has made guess at what, perhaps, my problem is: that I have become too good at reading, it has become an automatic System 1 process, whereas reading and comprehending is something which always needs to be carried out by System 2. This is a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion – that becoming better at reading makes us in some ways worse at reading – although since reading is a relatively recent invention and not something that we human organisms have evolved to do then there is little reason why this should not be so. And I do not have any easy solutions – I suppose that it would be possible to somehow introduce disruptions into one’s readings and so, by making it harder, force us back into using System 2. If anyone has any other suggestions on how to remain attentive while reading then I would welcome them.


Following on from the recent post on mindfulness, here’s another in my “self-help guru” (obviously I’m not) series. This time, I’m writing about willpower, based on the book Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength (by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney) which I recently finished reading. I have some reservations about the book (see my Amazon review for details), but thought I’d share anyway, as it contains some very interesting findings which so far I have managed to put to good use.

The book makes the case for the fascinating theory of Ego Depletion (a theory which seems to be the baby of Baumeister and his collaborators). This states (more-or-less) that exercising willpower is tiring: if we exercise willpower over one part of our life, we may not have enough energy left to be strong-willed elsewhere. The book gives reams of scientific evidence to support this view, although I have since learned that this evidence is not quite so widely accepted as the authors would have you believe. Still: interesting, and possibly true. And, as the book rightly points out, willpower is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and success in an individual. So who wouldn’t want more of the stuff?

What practical lessons can we draw from this? Well, one is that we should conserve willpower for the times when we really need it. Choose your battles. But additionally, recognise scenarios which require mental strength and try to make them less challenging (mindfulness is a very useful tool for helping you to recognise which scenarios require more mental strength). I’m not just talking about epic battles of the will (although the book includes some interesting examples of these, including David Blaine, who can successfully will himself to go without food for 44 days when he chooses); as with mindfulness, drip drip drip, small changes can build into a mighty force, and if you can conserve a little willpower by simplifying small decisions then this may leave you with more oomph to handle the big stuff.

To give one example, summoning the mental strength to decide what to do in a given situation can be stressful; if you are able to plan that situation in advance, you remove the need to think about it at the time, and thus conserve a little willpower for other tasks. I’ll demonstrate how I’ve been using this in my own life: I have always resisted routine (and, as a result, am forever forgetting to brush my teeth – yeah, I know), but I have recently enforced a morning drill on myself. Get up. Go to the loo. Take my tablets & inhaler. Brush teeth (with my left hand – more about this below), shave (again, left hand), shower, weigh myself, get dressed, breakfast and a nice cup of tea, pack my bag and go out to work. All of these things. In that order. Every day. (Well, at weekends perhaps skip the work in favour of walking the dog). So far, so mundane. But the weird thing I’ve found is that following this regimented process leaves my brain so much freer to think about other things. I’m no longer worrying “did I forget to brush my teeth?”, and by the time I leave the house I feel completely set up for the day.

This also has big implications for dieting (of which, more in my next blog post). Well, firstly the book says that you shouldn’t diet, because the thing which (allegedly) gives you the energy required for willpower is glucose, blood sugar, and if you restrict your intake of food then you are apparently weakening your ability to say no. This makes it more likely that your diet will fail. But one strategy which proved successful in experiments was to lay out clear ground-rules for any troublesome situation before you encounter it. Don’t be unrealistic (in fact, you’re advised not to alter your normal habits by more than 20% if you want to be successful), so for example if you are going to a party don’t say “I won’t eat any of the food there”, but say “I will allow myself to eat one plateful of food, but no seconds”. Don’t say “I’m not going to drink”, but do say “for every two alcoholic drinks I will have a glass of water”. Ration your willpower and plan tricky decisions in advance, and you stand a better chance of success in the long run.

Finally, it is important that you learn to spot signs which indicate that your willpower is waning (again: mindfulness helps here). It turns out that one key sign is an increase in emotions – whether they be happy or sad; if you find yourself more tearful or ecstatic than usual, it could be that your blood sugar is running low (this got me onto thinking about bipolar disorder…). In fact, the book suggests that low blood-sugar is the cause of PMT: when much of a woman’s energy is devoted to her reproductive cycle and she may not have as much to spare for conscious decision making, and may crave quick energy-givers such as chocolate. And sleep is as important a component of willpower as glucose: if you feel tired, well then… you need more sleep. This sounds trite, but how many people these days actually bother paying attention to the signals that their bodies send out, rather than knock back another coffee or Red Bull. (It turns out that stimulants are not a great aid to willpower although, at least in the short term, sugary snacks are – inasmuch as they boost blood sugar levels and get more energy to the brain).

Oh, and that left-handed tooth-brushing and shaving? Well, one study demonstrated this was a way of increasing the “stamina” of our willpower. I took that with a pinch of salt but, what the hell, it’s got to be worth a try, right?


A while ago, I posted a brief suggestion on how to be happier. Although I haven’t stuck religiously to my own advice (of finding some positives in each day), and there have been one or two times when my mood has dipped, life on the whole continues on an upwards trajectory. Particularly since Christmas I’ve felt fitter, healthier, happier and more productive. In the interests of sharing (and at the risk of painting myself as some sort of a self-help guru) I thought I’d list some techniques that I’ve been trying, and that are working for me. I will write separate posts on willpower and diet/exercise, but for now I will focus on the practice which I have found most useful: mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? Well, I guess you could just call it noticing things. Initially, noticing things about yourself – your breathing, body, mind and feelings – but ultimately mindfulness can be trained and expanded to help you be more aware of everything going on in the world and the people around you. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here of how to practice mindfulness (other than to say that the starting point involves meditation), because there are other resources listed below which do it far better than I could.

I first came into contact with mindfulness way back in 1989, when I was studying Psychology at university. Some of my fellow students got incredibly nervous about the coming exams, and as a result, one of the lecturers organised regular lunch-time workshops on relaxation and other coping techniques. I learned here that breathing deeply doesn’t mean breathing sharply, it means drawing the air all the way into your body; I learned how focusing on the breathing, and reciting simple mantras, can bring one’s mind back to rest from the hubbub of the everyday; and I learned that my own brain has the power to alter the temperature shown on a thermometer held in my fingers. Over the years I’ve drawn on these techniques to try and calm myself in times of stress, and to put the world in better perspective. More recently, the Sheffield Buddhist Centre (disclaimer: I am not a Buddhist) introduced me to the “mindfulness of breathing” meditation (and also the excellent “cultivation of loving kindness” meditation), and I realised that this practice was connected to the deep breathing I had learned years before in Bristol.

Since then, I have tried to find some time in my daily life for meditation; almost invariably I’ve failed. More recently still, Amazon sent me a book to review: The Mindful Manifesto, and it convinced me that, even if mindfulness is not the answer to every problem in the world, it’s a damn good alleviator of almost all of those problems (and, yes, there is scientific evidence backing this claim up in many fields – for example in one study, when people who had suffered three or more previous episodes of depression were given regular mindfulness exercises to carry out, their relapse rate was slashed from 66% to 37%).

But, finding a spare 20 minutes (which usually seems to be about the recommended length for a meditation) in my daily routine has proved impossible. 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much, but mornings are usually a more-or-less frantic dash to get to work in good time, lunch times are unpredictable, often brief (and anyway there is no suitable space at my work where I’d feel comfortable meditating). And evenings are already far too brief to fit in the bits of personal admin, book reading and socialising that I aim to do. So for months I was left high and dry with no meditatory outlets.

…until I decided to ignore the 20 minutes rule (which was never really a rule in the first place). At some point, I decided to give myself a goal of noticing my breathing at least once per day. Oh, and also of smiling and meaning it once per day. It seems like such a nothing of a goal that it oughtn’t to have any effect on life, but like the water dripping that eventually hollows out a cave or builds up a stalagmite, it has. I started by just pausing for a couple of slow, deep breaths while I was in bed in the morning. Then I started slotting additional breaths and smiles into the minute moments of downtime throughout my day: when stuck at traffic lights, waiting for a bus, or just standing for a moment to admire the scenery. And after just a few weeks, I can feel them solidifying into habits. In the meantime, I have also discovered the excellent Headspace website, which offers free 10 minute introductory guided meditations which you can listen to through your computer or phone, at your desk or on a bus. These have built powerfully on my little habit, and turned it into something which occasionally even makes me feel ecstatic, marvellously unburdened.

It’s still early days, but my meditation habit is growing step by tiny step, and daily I feel that my mood and my outlook on the world gets brighter and brighter. Meanwhile, I am working mindfulness into more and more areas of life – using it to keep me focused on my work, to prevent over-eating and drinking, and to be more present and empathic in my relationships with family and friends. I hope that you can find a spare two breaths in your every day to join me and be happy.


Last year, I read the book 59 Seconds, by Professor Richard Wiseman. It’s wonderful – ostensibly the first “self-help” book underpinned by science. It’s packed full of tips on all sorts of topics – improving your self-confidence sorting out your love life, reducing stress, getting things done… in fact, it’s so full of handy hints that I did what I usually do: read them all with glee and then promptly forgot about all but a few.

One which sticks in my mind is the art of giving gratitude. This is a little like the “positive affirmations” beloved of other self-help books, but unlike vague and even counterproductive affirmations (“every day in every way, you are getting better and better and better”) it’s a specific and proven way of making oneself happier. The trick (established via a study by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCulloch) is to regularly list things that you are grateful for. Not necessarily big things, just… anything: a beautiful sunset, the taste of pale ale, the love of a partner or parent. The reasoning is that we become habituated to the constants in our life (in the same way that, if you work in a bakery, you will come to blank out the smell of freshly-baked bread). By bringing these small positives to the front of mind, we see them afresh and learn to appreciate them more.

Similarly, bringing to mind recent positive experiences (even if they’re as small as finding a parking space or managing to drag oneself out of bed on time) has the effect of reinforcing those experiences. (Other writing exercises which lead to significantly improved mood include writing out your perfect future – something realistic, but in which all of your choices produce a successful outcome – and writing affectionately about somebody you love or care about)

So, for a short while after reading the book I practiced writing things down, but, as already mentioned, I rarely manage to keep something like this going. It slipped back onto the list of “things I really ought to do if I had the time”. Then, just recently, I had a revelation. And here’s how it came about…

I had started using the web service OhLife to keep a diary (OhLife is a little like a standard blog, but entirely private; it emails you once per day to ask “How did your day go?”; you reply with an email saying what you’ve been up to; a building archive of your responses is kept on the web for you to read back through whenever you feel like it). OhLife has got me keeping a diary for the first time in years. But sometimes I can’t be bothered to write anything, or don’t feel like it, or there aren’t enough hours in a day. It was on one such occasion that I was reminded of the diary schedule recommended in 59Seconds. And while I didn’t have time to write, in any kind of detail, how my day had been, plucking out three vaguely positive things from the previous day and sticking them in bullet-points hardly seemed like a chore.

Since then, I have continued using OhLife, sometimes as a diary, other times just as a brief list of positives, however small (“smiled at the postman; heard a bird singing; enjoyed a TV programme”). And it’s early days yet but it seems to be working: I haven’t had any real black moods since I started doing it, and it seems as though my up-times are swinging even higher up. It takes up so little of my time (perhaps two minutes per day) that even the most time-poor person could easily squeeze it in. And I even get some little joy from knowing that, five years hence, I will be able to look back and know on which day the postman’s smile made a difference to my mood.

Buy 59 Seconds from Amazon UK

Books that changed my life

A meme’s been doing the rounds on Facebook. Instructions are as follows:

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

I did that… but then wanted to offer more explanation of why these books are so special to me, and why you should probably read them as well. And so, I spent far too long writing up 16 potted book-reviews (After posting the original 15, I remembered one other which absolutely had to be on the list). Here they are (in no particular order), complete with links to Amazon via my associate account, so that you can buy them and earn me a few coppers if you like the sound of any of the books here (if anyone knows of a good alternative to Amazon for a very low-volume affiliate account, please let me know).

  1. Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison. I read this aged 17. At the time, I read only fantasy/sci-fi (which I thought this was). It is, in fact, anti-fantasy: all of its short stories seem to finish unresolved; no quest is ever completed satisfactorily. Suddenly I understood: this is what life is like; there is no beginning, middle and happy end. Despite this, the writing is so beautiful, the choice of words so unconventional and vivid, the stories can be enjoyed for those reasons alone. Reading this book taught me that sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the goal. I realised the fallacy of fantasy, and have never really bothered with it since. This one book completely changed my reading habits.
  2. Pastoralia, George Saunders. Probably the funniest, but also the saddest book I’ve ever read. Again short stories, they are a perfect exaggerated satire of life in the corporatised early 21st century (just as Gogol nails the early 19th century and Kafka the 20th). Saunders started, and has continued, in the same vein, but this his 2nd book is the peak of his originality & brilliance.
  3. All Quiet on the Orient Express, Magnus Mills. Like Pastoralia, warped sad, funny, chilling satire, and also a 2nd book which I prefer to the (more critically acclaimed) 1st, or subsequent ones. A young man camps in the Lake District, and takes on some farm work to subsidise a planned motorbike trip to the Orient. The atmosphere is very similar to League of Gentlemen. But nothing happens. Ever (except for one shocking, terrifying incident). But it "doesn’t happen" in such a way that makes this book the most compelling of page-turners. Surely, any moment now, something will happen! I read this for a book club once, and one of the other members said "how could anyone identify with this book? The hero is so spineless, nobody could be like that in real life." I identify 100% with the hero, I could be just that spineless, and I can appreciate that a story this unlikely could all too easily just happen. (I should also add that the original, Ladybird-style cover for this book is gorgeous. Sadly they’ve reprinted it in something generic and instantly forgettable).
  4. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Angela Carter. Angela Carter writes like an angel on acid, and nowhere is her writing more trippy than in this book. It’s a story of a young man from a ministry in an unspecified city in an era which seems to hover unobtrusively somewhere between medieval times and the 21st century. The city is under siege from Doctor Hoffman and his hallucination engine, so that nothing is ever what it appears to be. Carter can use language like absolutely no-one else I’ve ever come across. I’ve never experienced synesthesia except while reading her books. She can put one word unobtrusively alongside another in such a way that you can actually smell what she’s talking about, even though that smell is contaned in neither of the two words. Nearly 20 years after I read this book, I can stll remember its exact taste (and still don’t understand why it’s persistently out-of-print).
  5. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn. Again (like Carter) there is a smell, feel, taste which I associate with this novel. Without meaning to sound sexist, it sems that female authors often have a more sensory way of writing than men (although Harrison sometimes comes close). The story of an American family of circus freaks, deliberately and lovingly mutilated during gestation through a variety of bizarre and sickening practices. It’s an extremely beautiful, extremely moving study of the bonds and dependencies which arise within a group who are alone within society.
  6. Gödel, Escher, Bach – an eternal golden braid, Douglas Hofstadter. This was on my 3rd year psychology BSc reading list, for a course in Cognitive Ethology taught by Dr. Susan Blackmore. The book (and the course) changed my life completely: showed me all kinds of metaphors for how human consciousness may operate, and banished the need for any kind of "magic spark" from explanations of consciousness.
  7. The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins. Part of the same Susan Blackmore-led module as Gödel, Escher, Bach, this book did the same for my understanding evolution.
  8. Songlines, Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin’s brand of half travel-writing half musing and philosophising is, in my experience, quite unique and quite magical. This is the story of his trip to Aboriginal communities around Australia, but it is also the story of the human race. He builds up a theory, that humans are natural nomads who draw their energy and inspiration from the rhythms of walking, and who have lost much of their spirit by being coralled into permanent residencies. It’s very convincingly argued, and another example of a book which changed my opinion of what it is to be human.
  9. The Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky. I read this during my first two weeks apart from Gill – she was in Egypt while I was buried under a duvet in a squat in Leytonstone. It still conjures up memory of the magic of our young love mixed with the melancholia of separation. The story follows hero Danny (a not-even-thinly disguised version of Skvorecky) during two periods in his life. He is an aging Czech literature professor in a University in Canada, lusting after his young students, but his mind wanders back to his forced-employment and ultimately meaningless sabotage in the Messerschmidt factory in WWII rural Czechoslovakia, lusting after his tuberculosis-stricken co-worker. The novel is divided up according to the authors Danny is teaching at the time – Poe, Hawthorne, Twain. It’s incredibly complex, and I’m sure there is much here which I don’t quite "get", but its melancholy synthesis of youthful uncertainty/optimism and aged wisdom/cynicism really, really buries its way deep inside my heart.
  10. The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski. Szarkowski is my favourite writer on photography (though I’ve long meant to read Geoff Dyer, who is by all accounts a genius on the topic. Sontag and Barthes I’ve struggled with but not yet engaged with). Although this is mainly a (very good) photobook, with an all-encompassing survey of photography at the time of the accompanying exhibition (1964), what most insprires me is the accompany essay and the way the book is structured: split into 5 aspects the photographer must tackle (even if subconsciously) when making a photograph: the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, and vantage point. His explanation of these 5 is so clear and succint that even a child could read it and instantly become a master of photographic critique. It also articulates (again quite perfectly) what it is that makes photography different from other art forms (it’s all in the frame – quite literally).
  11. Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut. Extremely clever, extremely moving, extremely thought-provoking. An example of the kind of sci-fi which I still find quite acceptible, post-Viriconium. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. While captured during World War II, Billy is abducted by aliens who live simultaneously in all times, and he begins to see reality as they do, jumping from one point in his life to another, via old age, the death of his wife, the marriage of his daughter, a WWII bombing raid in reverse where aeroplanes mercifully suck fire & destruction out of a German city, to the finale in a fire-bombed slaughterhouse in Dreseden. One of the most powerful anti-war (but not anti-glacier) books ever, and a constant reminder that every single death is important, yet unavoidable. So it goes.
  12. Exquisite Corpse, Robert Irwin. Robert Irwin is one of the most intelligent, yet one of the most easily readable, authors I know of. This is a fictionalised autobiography of an English surrealist painter, which tells the history of the surrealist movement from the 30s to the 60s. Again, I find myself drawn to the WWII period, where surrealism was unnecessary with "a white horse galloping around inside a burning meat market… a girl in a blue dress emerging with her skipping rope from clouds of black smoke and skipping calmly by… facades of buildings curving and distending like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari… staircases which led nowhere, baths suspended apparently in mid-air, brick waterfalls flowing out of doorways and objects jumbled incongruously together". The novel also has one of the most audacious twists of any novel I have ever read, truly worthy of a surrealist. Read more of my thoughts on Exquisite Corpse here.
  13. The Good Soldier Švejk, Jaroslav Hašek. I was made aware of this (and also the excellent War with the Newts by Karel Čapek) through frequent references in the work of Josef Skvorecky. I usually struggle with books more than about 50 years old, but this one proved to me that during the First World War there was at least one author who shared a sense of humour with the writers of The Young Ones, Blackadder and The Office. Side-splittingly funny (but sadly uncompleted due to the author’s death), Švejk is the archetypal "little man", who subversively stands up to, and is much cleverer than, those in authority. By obeying their orders to the letter, he brings chaos everywhere he serves. I’m told by various friends that this is one of the absolute classics of Eastern European literature; also that the English language does not contain the range and nuance of swear words required to accurately translate the book.
  14. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass. The Tin Drum. An epic novel on the making of modern Germany. Again, it stays with me particularly because of the imagery and unusual incidents: Oskar’s violent birth, the worn-out drums, his father’s fall into the cellar, and (especially) the horse’s head with the eels. I also have a DVD the excellent Oscar-winning film of this (which only covers about the first half of the novel), plus a copy of the book in its original German (Die Blechtrommel, if I remember correctly), which I dream of one-of-these-days reading even though so far I’ve not managed to struggle very far into page two.
  15. À Rebours (usually Against Nature in English), Joris-Karl Huysmans. I read this on the recommendation of my friend Caroline Simpson, and am very glad I did. The story of Des Esseintes, a fin de siècle decadent aristrocrat who, having experienced all of life’s supposed pleasures and indulgences, tires of it all and has himself bricked up inside a house (with only a small hatch through which his servants deliver his meals). Like the Magnus Mills book, this sounds like it could be a tedious read, but its limitations are part of what make it quite magical: the attention to detail is as breath-taking as an intricately jewel-encrusted tortoise. The writing is quite dense, and this book taught me that reading is also an activity which can benefit from a "slow movement" approach: I lingered over and savoured every single word, and got a huge reward from doing so.
  16. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban. A post apocalyptic parable written entirely in not-quite-English (I know some people find this kind of thing very hard to read, but I find that if you let the sounds of the morphemes wash over you then within a couple of chapters it all makes sense). I’m told that every single word in the book has at least two meanings (prime among them: Addom, the biblical first man whose splitting caused the nuclear event which created the current state of this Kentish archipelago). Biblical and scientific double-meanings abound, parliament is a ritual carnival carried out by Punch-and-Judy men, and tradition and survival determine everything in this harsh future environment. Absolutely unique, absolutely genius, and once read never, ever forgotten.

I could have added at least another 15 kids books to this – especially the Uncle & Agaton Sax books. And When Little Bear met Great Bear (or was it the other way around), which I’m sure I didn’t dream up, but I have never managed to find listed in any online catalogue or in any of the booksellers in Hay-on-Wye. Anyway, I hope that you enjoy these reviews and that you’re inspired to read some of the books as a result.