It’s that time again… the year has turned and the first six months of 2011 have given way to the second tranche of annual decay and entropy.
As in previous years, I am listing all of the books that I have read in the last six months with links to where I have reviewed them. Sadly, as one of the sites I review for regularly is undergoing problems, I will be unable to link to a lot of the reviews I have produced. However, once the site is back up again, I shall return and fill in the links for anyone foolish enough to be curious.
1. Lightborn (2010) By Tricia Sullivan [Vector] : Searingly intelligent novel very much in the tradition of Mieville’s The City & The City that uses character and narrative to construct a powerful SFnal metaphor which Sullivan then uses to explore issues such as child vs. adult mindsets, the simplicity of political narratives and the ways in which governments can demonise entire areas for their own ends. Surely a must for the Clarke-award shortlist?
2. Ship Breaker (2010) By Paolo Bacigalupi [The Zone] : Yup… that’s that sorted then. This book manages to fill in the technical gaps that were all too obvious in the Windup Girl. Where TWG was all basso-profondo harmonics this is all about soaring melodies: great characters and compelling narratives. However, what makes the book particularly good is the fact that Bacigalupi still manages to weave some interesting subtexts into the mix including the idea of relationships with parents being a microcosm of the world and a three-fold metaphysics including luck, morality and smarts. Great stuff.
3. A Jew Must Die (2009) By Jacques Chessex : Amazing prose. Deals with the murder of a Jewish cattle farmer by a group of Swiss Nazis during the second world war. Utterly brutal in his depiction of the Swiss as savage fearful creatures but the ending does not quite work largely because he throws his hands up in the air and refuses to comment upon the murder and its implications. Which is weird because…
4. Le Vampire de Ropraz (2007) By Jacques Chessex : …is pretty much a dry run for A Jew Must Die. Contains the same lovely purple prose, the same scathing depiction of the Vaudois, the same obsession with the idea of scapegoats (in particular a local imbecile who is essentially designated as the person responsible for a series of horrible crimes not because he actually did them but because someone needed to serve that role). What is interesting is that whereas A Jew sees Chessex refusing to draw any conclusions about the murder of the Jew, Vampire sees him more than happy to blame the community and its desire to externalise its sin and its backwardness in the shape of an obvious ‘villain’.
5. Portrait des Vaudois (1969) By Jacques Chessex : A series of essays written by Chessex about the Canton of Vaud. I wanted to read it because I thought it might fill in some of the gaps between the other two books of his that I have read but instead I only came away with questions. Indeed, despite having spent my entire life going to the canton of Vaud, I simply do not recognise the place he describes. The people of Vaud are not all protestants. They do not all eat pork. They are not all farmers. Initially I thought that the essays were simply of their time but then I reached the one dealing with Montreux that suggests that ‘real’ Vaudois look down their nose at people from towns on the lake. Funny in places but didn’t really speak to me despite some lovely prose.
6. Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009) By Geoff Dyer : Much like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff in Venice seems to function first and foremost as a piece of travel writing. Dyer clearly begins with place before relating his experience of a place to the subject matter he wants to get at. In this case, the travel writing aspects work quite nicely with Dyer perfectly capturing the atmosphere of the Venice Bienale and the hippy trail of Varanasi but I’m not sure this book of two halves actually works as anything approaching a novel — the first half has a nice love story that goes nowhere and the second half has some guff about someone (presumably the same person but it’s written in the first rather than the third person) going to india, dropping out and becoming some kind of mad holy man. Yes, you can string the two things together in terms of the contrast between the sublime surrounding of venice and the profane interests of the character vs. the profane surroundings of Varanesi and the spiritual concerns of the character but I found these aspects of the book quite unconvicing. Pleasant but lacking in heft.
7. Christine Falls (2006) By Benjamin Black : Picked this up as preparation for delving into the books Banville has written under his own name. Was rather unconvinced if I’m honest. Despite the 1950s Dublin setting, the book really has little sense of place, its main lure is its view of society at the time and the way in which it captures the socially paranoid mindset of the characters. The characters themselves are well drawn (the psychotically resentful driver in particular but also the duality between Malachi and Quirke) but I was not particularly engaged either by the story — which felt lightweight — or the themes — which felt overly familiar. Okay but I don’t plan on reading any other of Banville’s crime novels.
8. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) By Barbara Vine : From one pseudonymous novel to another, this Ruth Rendell novel really is pretty damn good. Set largely during the second World War, the book slowly and painstakingly constructs the network of resentments that bind a dysfunctional family together. Eden is the glamorous and out-going younger sister who is brought up by Vera after the death of their parents. Eden embodies all of the weird social neuroses that make-up Vera’s worldview and, in a sense, she embodies the best things about them — she is beautiful, socially skilled, ambitious and a ferocious stickler for ‘doing the right thing’. However, when Vera has a child of her own, he turns out to be not only profoundly unpleasant but to absolutely loathe his mother. When Vera has an affair and has a second child, the second child is doted on to the point of madness but Eden suddenly appears and uses her wealth to try and wrench the child from its mother resulting in an increasingly unpleasant and violent custody battle. Brilliant stuff. So socially astute. Really interesting to read this account of War time social values after reading Blackout.
9. The Silent Land (2010) By Graham Joyce [The Zone] : Really disappointing. Startsoff well with a pair of skiers getting caught in an avalanche only to return to their hotel and find it empty. Slowly, the pair come to realise that they are dead and so begin to grind through these various possible scenarios as to what life might be about and what they are doing in this village. However, despite a number of beautifully written ‘conceptual break-throughs’, the unlife seems largely uninterested in their epiphanies. The universe of the dead is no more interested in us than the universe of the living. However, the book ends quite poorly with one of the epiphanies actually making sense. It’s not even the best epiphany. It is almost as though the book (which is quite cliché-ridden) resists the call of the Cliche for 220 pages and then gives in. Boo.
10. The Memory Chalet (2010) By Tony Judt : My enjoyment of this was several curtailed by the realisation that I had actually read all of the best pieces elsewhere. Struggled a bit with the autobiographical pieces partly because a) Judt did not have that interesting a life and b) Judt was quite a formulaic autobiographical writer as he would write and write and then try to attach his thoughts to some sort of wider conclusion, this sometimes felt like something of a wrench to say the least. However, the good pieces are pretty damn good I must admit.
11. The Art of Not Being Governed (2010) By James C. Scott [Ruthless Culture] : Despite its sub-title “An anarchist history of upland southeast Asia”, this is a book whose real power lies outside of its utility as a work of Asian history or theoretical political science. Beautifully written, exquisitely explained and brilliantly constructed, the book is less an academic study than it is a weapons grade meme depicting civilisation as this hideous be-tentacled beast that humans evade by constantly changing and redefining themselves in search of freedom. A masterpiece.
12. The Hammer (2010) By K.J. Parker [Interzone] : K. J. Parker produces novels that are unlike anything that anyone else has ever produced in the history of genre writing. She exists on the contested borderlands between science fiction and fantasy but whiles the likes of China Mieville blur the lines by tackling magic with a scientific sensibility and the likes of Hannu Rajaniemi blur the lines by using fantasy tropes to navigate information theory and hard SF, Parker approaches pseudo-medieval secondary worlds with the mindset of an engineer. Parker’s early Fencer trilogy saw her write a series of books that each engaged with the process of constructing a different kind of weapon. Her later engineer trilogy saw her examining not just the construction of siege weapons but also the process of industrialisation. This novel sees her return to the process of industrialisation in that it ostensibly deals with an attempt by a disgruntled nobleman to overturn a government monopoly by building a factory on an isolated island colony. However, beneath this engagement with medieval science and technology lies the savage beating heart of a piece of noir fiction. This book is not only about the amoral nature of progress, it is also about revenge and the amoral nature of justice. Simply superb.
13. Elmer (2010) By Gerry Alanguilan : Set in a world very much like ours but with the notable addition of sentient chickens, this neat graphic novel explores ideas of racism, resentment, guilt and the gradual process through which Others become recognised as human. Well told, beautifully drawn, genuinely affecting. Lovely stuff.
14. Asterios Polyp (2009) By David Mazzucchelli : Exquisitely drawn, brilliantly written, culturally aware and full of big ideas such as why it is that our patterns of thought fall into certain habits. One of the best graphic novels I have ever read.
15. All Clear (2010) By Connie Willis [The Zone] : I actually preferred this novel to the first one as the mystery as to what is going on is better handled through a number of different time-lines that intersect. However, I am still struck by how hollow and manipulative the book feels. How poorly defined the central characters are and how heavily Willis lays on the melodrama in a desperate attempt to end the book with some emotional charge. Stupid and poorly written but redeemed from complete catastrophe by the Hodbins.
16. Hotel du Lac (1984) By Anita Brookner [Ruthless Culture] : That’s it. I am officially an Anita Roddick fan. The book deals with the way in which the world seems to be divided up into the haves and have-nots. However, far from being based upon class, Brookner grounds this distinction in temperament and character, introducing us to predatory sensualists who are happy to hoover up all the pleasure even if it means exploiting other people and the quieter less hungry people who want pleasure but ultimately lack the verve or courage to battle for it. The distinction maps onto the introvert/extrovert dichotomy close enough to summon up the same vaguely moralistic accents but Brookner is just as hard on her pray as she is on her predators and the people who vacillate in-between. Magnificent stuff.
17. Feed (2010) By Mira Grant [Strange Horizons] : This book initially annoyed me quite a bit because it seems to have been written with very little understanding of the way that blogs and mainstream media relate to each other NOW and so speculation as to that relationship 30 years down the line felt unconvincing. Also the fact that the main character talks about being a hardcore journalist while in reality she’s a lightweight editorial columnist got my back-up too. However, once you come to accept that the book’s speculation is really not that rigorous (Grant is happy to cut and paste most aspects of traditional zombie lore) it bombs along like a big dumb puppy. Some minor glitches in pacing towards the end and a sentimental ending that I don’t think is entirely deserved but a perfectly serviceable ‘fun’ book.
18. The Confidential Agent (1939) By Graham Greene : A relatively minor Greene I felt. Perfectly handled spy story (naturally) that really captures not only the sense of estrangement one has upon arriving in a new country but also the way in which spies seem to operate on the edges of society with access to the top but no real sense of belonging. Beautifully laconic mood, really enjoyed it even if I was aware that it was lacking the thoughtfulness that characterises Greene’s best novels.
19. The Janissary Tree (2006) By Jason Goodwin : Really enjoyed this whilst fully realising how formulaic it is. The detective (a eunuch) is the classic worldly and yet sensitive sleuth who investigates a colourful setting (Ottomon Istanbul) and so ‘learns the world’ and describes the hidden forces that animate that society. In this case the clash between the desire to ‘progress’ through Europeanisation and the desire to remain true to tradition embodied by the Janissary order. Light, breezy and with a great sense of place. Lovely stuff.
20. The Day of the Locust (1939) By Nathanael West : Quite a difficult book to engage with. Contains some wonderful grotesques and some beautiful turns of phrase but I found the satirical content of the novel to be somewhat unfocused and uneven… yes Hollywood people can be terrible grasping phonies and yes, there’s something quite unsettling about the way in which Hollywood milks people of their aspirations but I struggled to unpack these criticisms from the book’s overwhelming misanthropy. Initially, I thought that West was contrasting the falseness of the Hollywood types with a) Homer Simpson’s (not that Homer Simpson) naïve victimhood and b) the cowboys but then West seemed to suggest that both of these were part of the problem too. I found that the book’s satire lacked grounding and so was less powerful.
21. Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volume 3 (2010) By Fumi Yoshinaga [Gestalt Mash] : Yet another hugely enjoyable chapter in Yoshinaga’s alternative history. Aside from great artwork and undeniably improving translation work, the book really manages to build both on the early themes and the early arguments. Adding complexity. Adding depth. Adding character, plot and theme. Brilliant stuff.
22. Straw Dogs (2002) By John Gray : A magnificent work of popular philosophy but I really could have done with a more thorough attitude towards footnotes and references. The book is filled with lovely ideas about the pointlessness of human existence, the non-existence of the self and the foolishness of utopian politics but while I found a lot of the ideas compelling, I did realise that steps in the argument were being skipped and it would have been nice to have been able to follow the arguments more closely in my own time.
23. Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volume 4 (2010) By Fumi Yoshinaga [Gestalt Mash] : Moves the action on from the time-frame of the first three volumes and so begins to chart the decline of the female Shogunate and how the political feedback loops but in place in the early books started to fail when later Shogun took over the running of the country. Ends on a magnificent cliffhanger.
24. Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volume 5 (2011) By Fumi Yoshinaga [Gestalt Mash] : Beds down in the time-frame introduced in volume 4 it basically shows what happens when a moral vaccuum is created at the heart of government and ambitious and demented men are allowed to fill it. Ends on something of a cliffhanger but at this point I am hooked into the narrative… need to know what happens next.
25. Seeing Like A State (1998) By James C. Scott : This book lays a lot of the groundwork for The Art of Not Being Governed but Scott proves intriguingly unwilling to commit to the idea of the state as an agent in its own right (the viewpoint that makes The Art of Not Being Governed so Powerful). This could well be due to the fact that the onus was on explaining how state officials come to see like a state and how the state’s perception is made up but I found the lack of philosophical engagement with the idea of the state’s eye view to be somewhat disappointing, as is his lengthy discussion of more local sub-state-level knowledge.
26. All Things Shining (2011) By Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly : Another work of what one might call popular philosophy, this book is held up by fascinating readings of David Foster Wallace and Moby Dick but I found the suggestion that we buy into a form of polytheism and gratitude directed at the world to be lacking in psychological substance. Are they really suggesting that the human mindset has changed that much, and if so, how did these changes take place? I suspect that a lot of the step-skipping is due to the fact that the book arrives at a similar conclusion to Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness In The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Hmmm…
27. Hans J, Morgenthau’s Theory of International Relations (2010) By Mihaela Neacsu : Awful and really disappointing. Firstly, Neacsu seems to struggle to grasp what Disenchantment actually means. She keeps banging on about morality but the lack of foundation for moral judgements is not quite the same thing as Disenchantment as Disenchantment is about the meaning of life and while morality can flow from the meaning of life and an absolute set of values, it can also flow from facts in the world. There is more to life than morality. Secondly, the book is really badly written as Neacsu feels obliged to continually state and restate what she has done, is doing and is about to do. Thirdly, fully half the book is devoted to the combing through Morgenthau’s old reading habits. Surely if you want to suggest that Morgenthau’s theory is about Disenchantment then the heavy lifting should be textual in character and NOT biographical? Really disappointing. Ugh.
28. The Dervish House (2010) By Ian McDonald [Ruthless Culture] : Really disappointed in this as well. I think it does what Brasyl and River of Gods did with a lesser degree of success but it is also trying to bring those techniques on by taking on a more ambitious subject matter in a more ambitious and thematically complex way. However, the book completely fails to live up to those increased standards. If you need to have a character stand up and deliver a speech tying everything together then you are in trouble.
29. Bluets (2009) By Maggie Nelson : I quite enjoyed this. It is one of those works of philosophy/literature/non-fiction that David Shields and others are always banging on about right down to the fact that it is composed of a series of numbered paragraphs. Featuring quotations, flights of lyrical fantasy and biographical disclosure, the book attempts to grapple with the author’s obsession with the colour blue. What it means. Where it comes from. In a sense the colour blue is the meaning of life itself and by interrogating her obsession with the colour, Nelson is interrogating her life. Not as complex as I might have hoped (it is quite shaggy and not particularly profound in its observations) but still a good and different read.
30. Outpost (2011) By Adam Baker [Interzone] : This starts off quite well. It is set on a nearly abandoned oil rig in the north sea. Inhabited by a collection of weird individuals who are all alienated to the point of nervous collapse, the group wind up watching the end of the world on TV. Apocalypse by zombie naturally. Unfortunately, Baker does not want to write about how people feel when the world ends… he wants to write an action movie full of thrills and spills. A real ‘page turner’. However, because he overly aggressively frames his scenes — cutting out character development and the quiet moments in between explosions and gun-fights — he completely fails to imbue the text with any sense of tension. It is all written in one register. As a result, the book is boring and unengaging despite its atmospheric setting. Bah.
31. Dead Souls (1841) By Nikolai Gogol : Really enjoyed this. It’s a faintly satirical novel that combines elements of the Picaresque Romance with the structure of the Odyssey, telling the story of a man who travels about the Russian countryside buying up dead souls. He encounters numerous colourful characters and has all kinds of quite amusing adventures before the currents of public opinion turn against him somewhat fickly and he is forced to flee. The introduction is also fascinating as the author basically invites people to write in and correct him in cases where his satires might fail to hit the mark. Extraordinary really.
32-34. The Chimpanzee Complex I-III (2009) By Marazano & Ponzio [Gestalt Mash] : A somewhat misfiring SF comic series that charts a vast unfolding government conspiracy within the space programme that opens up onto a Clarkean pseudo-mystical secret history to the universe. Unfortunately, instead of rigorous speculation or character analysis, the writers fudge the issue with some vague mystical hand-waving. Doubtless works better if seen as a dream or a faded memory than a work of true SF.
35. Daytripper (2011) By by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon : A decidedly literary comic that attempts to explore the idea of mortality through a series of fragments from a character’s life that invariably end in his death. These numerous deaths basically afford the main character (who is an obituary writer) to reflect on his life and try to sum things up but he never quite manages to do so because life is forever moving forwards and unfolding before him. Beautiful artwork, nice characterisation, clever structure but really nothing all that interesting or profound to say sadly.
36. Threshold – A Novel of Deep Time (2001) By Caitlin R. Kiernan : You can see the author that Kiernan will become struggling to get out from beneath this somewhat underwhelming urban fantasy romp. The prose is there, the pacing is glacial and there are a few nicely creepy moments but the real star of the show is the way that Kiernan updates the Lovecraftian intersection of fantasy’s deep time with the concept of deep time as it appears in paleontology. Kiernan finds the purple in scientific language and deploys it with significant style and grace though I could not help but feel that the book nominal protagonist Chance was something of an empty vessel compared to her deliciously self-loathing and lethargic ex-boyfriend.
37. Evaporating Genres – Essays on Fantastic Literature (2011) By Gary K. Wolfe [Ruthless Culture] : An excellent and thought-provoking attempt to account for the nature of genre as something that is inherently dynamic and changeable rather than fixed. Contains some fantastic essays and some great insights but I am puzzled by the disconnect between what Wolfe says the genre should be doing and the books he seems to enjoy in his Locus reviews.
38-41 The Scorpion I-IV (2008) By Stephen Dresberg & Enrico Marini : Really disappointed in this. Initially, I was attracted to it because it reminded me of Assassin’s Creed and the French tend to do quite well with these sort of bawdy action-adventure stories but I really struggled to care about the goings on in this Renaissance swashbuckling tomb-raider homage. I liked the attempts to delve into Church history and the old Bande Dessinee saw of Christianity being an imposition on the world but I didn’t like the characters, found the sexy romping repetitive and by and large found the whole thing rather thin.
42. Imagination/Space (2009) By Gwyneth Jones : Contains some great criticism and some great insights into the history of feminist SF but I felt somewhat frustrated by the fact that a lot of the themes of the essays were clearly interconnected but they were too short to develop some of the ideas at any length meaning that Jones was forever re-inventing the wheel and articulating the same thoughts in slightly different ways without really adding to them in any great depth. Some great pieces (particularly the reviews of French genre criticism) but a bit too much filler and very much the sum of its parts (unlike the Wolfe collection)
43. The Demolished Man (1953) By Alfred Bester : Ugh. The ceaselessly dynamic tone of the book reminded me very much of Rogue Moon but I think that Rogue Moon may have been intended as a parody of precisely this sort of book. Filled with poorly-drawn alpha males butting chests, the book contains some nice ideas about telepathy (particularly the interwoven speech patterns) but I thought the characters and their motivations were so thin and the psycho-babble such absolute bullshit that I really could not find it in my heart to care. If this is the best that vintage SF has to offer then pass me a spade cuz I gots me some graves to dig.
44. Among Others (2011) By Jo Walton [The ZONE] : I have thought about this book quite a bit and I have decided that I don’t like it. The problem is that it is too thinly written. On the one hand, it is possible to read it as a fantasy story about a young girl with magical powers who finds her way into genre fandom despite the depredations of her evil mother, and on the other hand it is possible to read it as the story of a teenaged girl who struggles with a form of psychosis while being alienated and finding her way into fandom. The book really can be read both ways and so is clearly interstitial but despite this (and the sociological stuff about early SF fandom, which is more phatic than insightful) occupying the novel’s foreground, neither interpretation nor an ambiguous reading are rewarding enough to make it a particularly interesting book. If it is a fantasy then it is quite poorly realised and if it is a psychological novel then it suffers for the fact that the secondary characters are way too thin and the main protagonist far too simple to carry much clout. Really not much of a book at all.
45. Halcyon Drift (1973) By Brian Stableford : Loved the set up: low-rent spacer marooned alone on a planet when his ship crashes is beset by a voice that could be either an alien brain parasite or his sanity coming apart. He is then rescued and has to face the grieving family of his engineer who was (it is implied but not stated) his lover and soul-mate despite the pair having a somewhat ambiguous love/hate/you complete me -style relationship. Then the book falls apart as it turns out that crazy pilot is the best pilot in the world and he’s been hired by a sinister conglomerate to fly the best ship in the world — cue 100 pages of lovingly composed but really quite uninteresting writing about communing with the ship and straining against netrino flows and topping out at 50 thou. Some very nice prose at times but this feels like something interesting (crazy low-rent gay space guy) manacled to something dull (kick-ass pilot in kick-ass ship have kick-ass adventures). I think the problem is one of tonal clash… the character and tone of the book would lend themselves well to stories of low-rent spacers scrabbling for cash on the edges of the known galaxy but instead Stableford saddles his character with the best ship in the world. Bah. Might read the second in the series out of curiosity but meh…
46. King Solomon’s Carpet (1991) By Barbara Vine : After a fantastically purple opening description of someone suffering a heart-attack in the tube, the book takes an absolute age to get going as it carefully fills in the backstories of its characters and makes clear why it is they all wind up living together in this particular house. From there, it introduces a problem (a character planning on committing a terrorist atrocity) and both explains why it is that the people in the house seem intent upon helping him and how it is that he gets his way. Slowly, as the denouement becomes increasingly obvious, the tension grows and grows and grows again before resolving in magnificent style. A masterclass in tension and psychological analysis.
47. The Big Sleep (1939) By Raymond Chandler : Read this because it’s been too long since I last read it and because I have come to realise that a lot of what passes for hardboiled crime now continues to be in ‘dialogue’ with this book despite the fact that it is over 70 years old. In truth, I am not overly impressed by it. I love the clear (if someone episodic) lines of the narrative, I love the voice, the world-view and can appreciate the originality of it all but it’s just not particularly interesting. It’s an ur-text but the techniques have been improved upon hugely since then.
48. White Cat (2010) By Holly Black [THE ZONE] : Enjoyed this despite being quite painfully aware of how clunky a lot of the plotting is (clunky in the sense of obvious and heavily sign-posted) does some quite clever stuff with the philosophical underpinnings of character and has a wonderfully down-beat ending but while I thought the grifting sections lacked oomph, I’ll happily read the next in the series.
49. Cyclonopedia (2008) By Reza Nagarestani [Ruthless Culture] : This felt very much like a continuation of the anti-Theory guerilla warfare waged so beautifully by Alain Sokal and so hideously by the likes of Dennis Dutton. Nagarestani essentially proposes a reading of middle-eastern politics based on the assumption that oil is a sentient but profoundly alien and Lovecraftean entity. Full of brilliant ideas, the book is written in such impenetrable Academic-eze that it feels more like a work of art and an academic prank than a serious book. If Sokal suggested Theory was a form of writing all about style rather than content, Nagarestani seems to take the argument a step further and suggests that it is like a medieval grimoire or the ravings of a mad man: rigorous, internally consistent and entirely deluded.
50. Low Red Moon (2003) By Caitlin R. Kiernan : Not convinced by this. A) the prose seems to have been toned down, b) the scientific ‘deep time’ iconography has been replaced by standard gothic/horror schtick and the pacing is still as slow. Attempt to relaunch the series on a more commercial bent? Perhaps.
51. Child 44 (2008) By Tom Rob Smith : Can definitely see why this hybrid of historical fiction and noir crime set in Stalinist Russia got onto the Booker long list. The key to the piece is the systematic humiliation and torture of a Stalinist secret policeman as he moves from being a loyal agent of the state to being a self-mortifying pariah hounded across the bleak Russian landscape and hated by everyone he thought he loved. Neat insights into the Stalinist mindset, wonderfully gruey accounts of MGB interrogation settings and a compelling serial killer bad guy to drive things forward but the real heart of the piece is the central character’s angst and attempts to find redemption and how every attempt to find something good in his life simply results in further humiliation and mortification. Great stuff.
52. The Secret Speech (209) By Tom Rob Smith : SUCH a disappointment. Attempts the recapture that humiliation aesthetic of the first novel but a) the character did receive some degree of redemption at the end of the first novel and so it seems to be going over old ground and b) the humiliation and hardship is completely stripped of psychological context meaning that rather than a fiendish character study, the novel boils down to nothing more than torture-porn as the character fights his way through gulags and people hating him but without the added hook that he kind of deserves it. The novel’s narrative is also screwed up by the decision to spread the plot across too many subjects by having him BOTH battle a vory gang AND try to infiltrate a gulag. Really disappointing, felt really rushed (which is understandable given the huge success of his first novel). Might well look in on his next book but will read the reviews carefully first.
53. Solar (2010) By Ian McEwan : This story of a disgruntled, fat, pompous and letcherous Nobel laureate is undeniably funny (the sequence in which he thinks his penis has frozen and broken off is fantastic) but it feels very much like a work of genre. Firstly, the choice of character is predictable (take 1 big pompous ass, strip him down, watch the pathos flow) and secondly, no new psychological insights are produced. Enjoyable though I found it, this is a predictable piece of genre fiction.
54. Universal War — Complete (2006) [Gestalt Mash] : Enjoyed this work of hard SF but I am still thinking about it.
55. The Door to Lost Pages (2011) By Claude LaLumiere [Strange Horizons] : A slippery little work of fantasy made up of a number of short stories published in radically different places. The different tones of the stories and their shared subject matter work to create an impression of many paths leading to consolation. Stylistically interesting and very enjoyable even if it is a wee bit shallow.
56. The Hunger Games (2009) By Suzanne Collins [The Zone] : A very formulaic post-apocalyptic reality TV story enlivened by the fact that Collins refuses to question the basic logic of the games. Because the central character completely accepts the need to fight and kill in the arena, the book comes across less as a traditional finger-wagging critique of TV and more as a commentary on the extent to which modern society functions in the same way as reality TV. Neat social commentary but ultimately a weak novel.
57. Red Glove (2011) By Holly Black [The Zone] : I *hated* this and am so disappointed both by its complete dishonesty and its failure to move the plot on. The novel is essentially padding, a way of keeping the unresolved plot-strands from the first novel so that they can feed into the grand finale of book three. Dull and dishonest. Ugh.
58. Winner-Take-All Politics – How Washington Made the Richer Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (2010) By Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson : Like most non-academic works of non-fiction, I was struck by the shallow nature of this book’s analysis. Indeed, the basic ideas (that electoral politics is largely a punch and judy show as it is under Democrats and not Republicans that big swings to the right took place and that the super-rich have effectively syphoned money away from the middle classes) are sound but I would have liked a bit more depth on how these changes took place. Enjoyable, insightful and really important but ultimately frustrating from my perspective.
59. The Brass Verdict (2008) By Michael Connelly : This starts really really well. Mickey Haller comes back from a pain-killer addiction (explains time gap between this book and the Lincoln Lawyer as Connelly’s timeline plays out in real time) and ‘inherits’ a thriving law practice full of dark secrets. Connelly does a brilliant job of describing how Haller tries to impose some order on the practice and get his career back on track but the main narrative strand (a hollywood producer accused of murder) is rather dull and over-cooked compared to the fascinating and well-observed realism of the secondary plot lines. As the book comes to revolve around this main narrative strand, the book weakens and the ending (in which Connelly ties this series of novels to his other detective novels in a ludicrous way) is pure and unbearable fan-service. A shame but I do want to read the next novel in the series.
60. Cinq Mille Kilometres Par Seconde (2009) By Manuele Fior : An Italian Indie comic translated into French. This is really *really* good. Begins with a bunch of kids running around a neighbourhood and shows one of them slowly falling in love with his neighbour. Fast forward to the Neighbour moving to Scandinavia in order to get away from ill-tempered boyfriend and you basically have a story of the entanglement of two people’s lives or rather the repercussions of that entanglement as Fior never shows us the big moments… they always take place off-stage allowing his to focus upon the quieter moments of aftermath. Beautifully drawn, densely atmospheric use of colour and a great eye for human weakness and strength alike.
61. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction (2010) By Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint (eds) : A fantastic series of essays about important people in the history of SF. The essays are clearly written and are predominantly biographical in nature with all critical insights sourced to particular works of criticism rather than presented as historical ‘fact’. The aim is to provide a basic overview of the movers and shakers in Sf history that we can draw on to construct our own histories of the genre. Very much the product of the post-modern turn in SF but still weakest on those pieces that fall outside the traditional canonical history of SF (the Octavia Butler one is particularly weak).
62. The Possessed (2010) By Elif Batuman : This starts with a series of *very* good essays about a woman’s experience as a graduate student researching Russian literature. The early essays are funny, insightful and astonishingly intelligent. However, after the first couple of essays, the book settles down into a more sedate form of literate travel writing describing visits to various places in Russia and central Europe. I’m not a big fan of travel-writing and perhaps this is why I didn’t get on with the later chapters but this does seem like too little material to make up a complete book. At its best, brilliant… otherwise okay.
63. The Blood Doctor (2002) By Barbara Vine : Easily the most disappointing Barbara Vine novel I have read to date. Tells of a life peer who is researching a biography of his great-grandfather (a renowned victorian expert on haemophilia) while he struggles to deal with his wife’s frequent miscarriages and his own political irrelevance in the wake of House of Lords’ reform. Initially the book works quite well as the theme of blood (blood as in haemophilia, blood as in miscarriages, blood as in family and blood as in nobility) holds the various strands together. However, as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the strands are never going to meet and so we are left with some really well-observed stuff about people having kids and some lovely stuff about life in the House of Lords but no underlying thematic unity. Disappointing!
64. Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1899) By E.W. Hornung : Interesting counterpoint to the Holmes stuff I’ve been dipping into lately. Whereas Holmes uses his skill to reveal that, beneath the chaos of crime, the Victorian universe is a profoundly sensible and rational one, Raffles is an element of chaos who steals from the upper classes and generally fails to fit in. Unfortunately, the capers are never all that interesting and Hornung never deepens his analysis of either Raffles or the world he lives in and so the stories get repetitive quite quickly. Good fun though, especially for the Victorian slang.
65. His Master’s Voice (1968) By Stanislaw Lem : Absolutely fantastic. A meditation on the difficulty of communication that looks at the problem both from the issue of our capacity to read anything into anything and our incapacity to really put ourselves into the position of the speaker well enough to understand where they’re coming from and what it is that they have to say. Brilliant stuff.
66. Post-Cinematic Affect (2010) By Steven Shaviro : A collection of essays clustered around the idea of ‘Post-Cinematic Affect’ by which Shaviro means the wrung-out and over-saturated feel of end stage capitalist society. The concept of the ‘affect’ itself I quite sketchy but as a series of essays on unlikely subjects (a music video and some largely overlooked exploitation films) this is genuinely brilliant stuff.
67. Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft and Business of Making Movies (2011) By David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson : A magnificent collection of essays taken from Bordwell and Thompson’s blog touching on issues ranging from the nuances of film financing to the changing nature of Hollywood editing. Great food for thought and great film writing.
68-74. Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (Vols 1-6) (2008) By Matoro Mase [Gestalt Mash] : I really enjoyed the film version of this Manga series and I am very glad that I decided to track down the original comics as the comics are arguably even better. I very much like the way that the series is structured (short stories focussing on different reactions to grief + framing narrative all about changing attitudes to society in which 1 person in 1000 is sacrificed in order to give other citizens a better appreciation of life) and the handling of both the inner and outer narratives is very nearly flawless. A great work of speculative fiction grounded in a real eye for the nuances of human suffering.
75. The Year of the King (1985) By Antony Sher : This was something of a disappointment I must admit. I picked it up having heard good things about its handling of a) what it’s like for an actor to ‘create’ a character and b) what it’s like to be a part of an acting company but I found it was too bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day events such as choosing the right type of hump for Richard III and whether or not he should accept one part and then sit out a season. Has some nice moments and Sher’s artwork is superb but by and large left me cold.
76. The Labyrinth Makers (1970) By Anthony Pryce : Having read Greene and Le Carre, this came as something of a disappointment too. The characters feel lightweight, the plot is underdeveloped and I found the feeling that Pryce is continuously ‘investing’ in what would become a franchise quite oppressive.
77. A Fatal Inversion (1987) By Barbara Vine : Having been disappointed with The Blood Doctor, I was delighted to discover that this is quite possibly the best Vine I have read so far. The story begins with some people digging up a body. We know that someone has been killed, we know that a group of people are living with the consequences of a murder, but the questions remain as to who died and why… the book then introduces us to a bunch of characters, puts them in a situation that forces certain personality traits to the fore and then watches as things get worse and worse. Brilliantly paced and with brilliant characterisation, there is a brutal and beautiful efficiency about this novel… why can’t all psychological thrillers be this good?
78. The Reversal (2010) By Michael Connelly : That’s it… I’m giving up on Connelly. As with previous Haller book, the research into the Californian legal process is brilliant and Connelly has a real gift for quick characterisation but YET AGAIN, the case ends with a shoot-out (do any of Mickey Haller’s cases end without someone getting shot in the face before the verdict is handed down?) and there’s a really inconsistent attitude towards the developments in Haller’s life. What happened to the practice he ‘inherited’? What happened to his old researcher and driver? Either these books are about a lawyer working cases in a developing world or they’re not… Connelly can’t have it both ways. Will not read any further.
79. Smoking in Bed – Conversations with Bruce Robinson (2000) By Alistair Owen : An interesting book-length interview with Robinson about his career as an actor, screen-writer and director. Quite funny at times, this is a great peek behind the curtain at how ideas get turned to much by the Hollywood filmmaking process.
80. All My Darling Daughters (2010) By Fumi Yoshinaga : I can see the links between this and Ooku in that both books are ultimately about slightly off-kilter relationships. Yoshinaga is brilliant at characterisation and brilliant at the interaction between social circumstance and emotional need but somewhat more sketchy on narrative meaning that — much like Ooku — this reads more as a collection of short stories than as a novel in its own right. There is a framing narrative (as is traditional in manga of this kind) but it’s quite weak and so the book does not hold together all that brilliantly.
81. Not Love but Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! (2010) By Fumi Yoshinaga : Again, really strong on relationships, not so strong on coherent narrative. This manga is a series of restaurant reviews embedded in a wry but ultimately quite generous and self-depracating autobiographical commentary on Yoshinaga’s life (here she takes the form of Y-naga). I didn’t get on that well with this manga partly because Yoshinaga has a knack for making food seem absolutely disgusting partly because, unlike most food writers, she focuses not upon the technical quality of the food (X is really well made) but on how the food tastes (X is really good, I ate 6 of them) meaning that the book is suffused with an air of gluttony that is quite uncomfortable for someone like me who has issues with food. The relationship stuff is well-handled though but I think I’m ready to return to Yoshinaga’s extended narratives.
82. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) By Rosemary Sutcliff : Possesses all the subtlety of a mallet to the testicles but works really very well in so far as it presents us with a compellingly disjointed world (the separation between the Roman vision of Britain and the British vision of Britain is particularly well realised as is the fact that the Roman characters don’t really get the difference in perspective between coloniser and colonised), some well-rounded characters and some nice and genuinely tense set-pieces. All in all, a very well realised book.
83. The Whole Equation – A History of Hollywood (2004) By David Thomson : This is a very very strange book. Essentially, it’s a collection of essays on Hollywood. The essays range on topics from the business of film to the nature of the star system to attitudes to new technology to the inner life of movie moguls and they are presented as historically sequential but in truth they don’t really overlap and they don’t really feed on each other either. As a result, the book does a *really* good job of showing you how much goes into the making of a film (a glimpse at a mature film studies?) but at the same time, it doesn’t come anywhere close to running all the elements together and constructing the equation itself.
84. Budding Prospects (1984) By T. C. Boyle : Haven’t read this book for a long time but was spurred to look back at it as a result of learning that Bruce Robinson worked on a screenplay for a film adaptation. I can see why. Looking back at it now, I am struck by how much it resembles an American Withnail & I: It has the same squalor, the same celebration of quite intense male relationships, the same celebration of aimless drifting as a way of life and the same combination of very middle class values combining with counter-cultural rebellion and reacting with absolute cowardice in the face of the people that you are supposed to be rebelling against. It has all of these things but the humour is a lot broader, the characters (by and large) are much less fine-grained and the pacing is somewhat more problematic for a book that is supposed to be funny. A somewhat muted reconciliation with an old friend I would say.
85-86. Pluto (Issues 1 and 2) By Naoki Urasawa : A well-drawn and neatly paced manga detective serial set in a futuristic Japan where someone or something is killing off the world’s most powerful robots.Based upon an old Astroboy story, I felt insufficiently knowledgeable about the source material to really get the most of this series so I decided not to press on any further seeing as it didn’t particularly engage me.