Hi! My name is Martin and I’m the creator of Fox & Songbird. In my day job I work as a software developer and designer for Hubble, a startup in London to help small companies find an office they love.
I’m a keen photographer, enthusiastic boardgamer and occasional writer – always inspired by my love of books. Perhaps that’s obvious as I set up a website entirely dedicated to the subject but it’s always worth saying! My first love was sci-fi and fantasy, aided and abetted by my dad who had a sizeable collection of Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke among many others. Since then I’ve branched out and read a lot of non-fiction, especially around language, history and science, and more recently I’ve got into a wider variety of fiction.
Choosing just five books to recommend is a surprisingly challenging task but one book was at the top of the list all of the way through the process. That book is Sapiens, a truly epic retelling of the story of humanity from its earliest days by Yuval Noah Harari. He weaves a compelling arc of history through three dramatic shifts in the nature of humanity: the cognitive revolution seventy thousand years ago when we gained the ability to speak of things that do not exist, the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago and the scientific revolution only five hundred years ago.
This book is, at its heart, a reframing. It presents another way to look at the progress – and the future – of humanity and challenges the unspoken assumptions that hold the modern world in place. It introduces new ideas and rearranges old ones with masterful language that makes complex ideas feel simple and somehow obvious. It’s hard work because of the sheer scope of the picture it paints, but the writing is fluid, clear and rich: it is a joy to read, and a genuinely important book that I not only recommend but actually request that you read.
I have recently been reading a kind of fiction which is new to me and seems to fall into a strange non-genre: they are stories set in our world and our time which often seem to draw from fantasy, history or science fiction without being defined by their presence, diving deep into the unsettling, twisted depths of the minds of seemingly banal people, stories which are mysterious, sometimes supernatural and somehow unknowable.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is the epitome of this kind of story. I worry about saying too much and dulling the sense of curiousity and exploratory wonder that the book instills in you as it weaves between supernatural mystery, historical memoir and a very human tale of disintegrating relationships. It’s disorienting, perplexing and extremely difficult to put down.
Peter F. Hamilton’s Void Trilogy, the first book of which is The Dreaming Void, concerns two very distinct and yet inseparable stories. One is fantasy: the tale of Edeard, an orphan and apprentice psychic, learning how to shape and train the creatures that serve for technology on Querencia, a planet in the Void. The other is sci-fi: the Void exists in our world as well, an ever-expanding impenetrable object in the galactic core which threatens to consume the entire galaxy.
The imagination that permeates the book is breathtaking. Both universes are alien and unfamiliar filled with ideas and concepts each of which could sustain an entire book on its own but still feel well-explored and satisfying. The scope is vast (if admittedly occasionally hard to follow with six or so interlinked stories) without sacrificing the relatable arcs of individual characters.
Another trilogy, this time pure and classic fantasy. The concept is not the strength here. The bastard son of a prince is disowned and raised by his father’s stableman and as he grows, he discovers he has a rare magical skill that may be the key to saving the kingdom that rejected him. So far, so fantasy. What sets this book (and the whole trilogy) apart is not the concept but the execution: the characters are the most well-realised of, I think, any book I have ever read and the prose is wonderful, engrossing and skillful. All too often fantasy and sci-fi novels fall into the trap of leaning on plot and world-building at the expense of character and nuance but not here.
This is a rare fantasy book that stands tall on the strength, believability and rich detail of the relationships between the characters, elevated by its plot, setting and imagination but not reliant on them.
This book gave me a little bit of an existential crisis, but in a good way: it makes you (assuming you’re English) realise how many of your preferences, quirks and character traits are determined not by something individual to you but simply by the way you fit into your place in our very odd country. Kate Fox methodically and rigorously dissects, experiments on and analyses the weird and wonderful culture and norms of the English, in a way which makes the normal life that we are so used to living seem curious and very alien, yet everything rings completely true. It has the rigour of true sociological research and the humour and storytelling of the very best popular science books.
It is tempting to think that because there are such a vast number of books published every year, that no book truly stands on its own, so when I finished this book I immediately set about looking for similar books, either on other cultures (especially the French, since I moved there last year) or more on the English, but there simply don’t seem to be any out there. This is something genuinely new, and it’s amazing that something like this which is the first of its kind is also this polished, enthralling and thoroughly entertaining, both to the English themselves but also, judging by its reviews, to visitors and immigrants who are mystified by our ways.