The other day I posted a (very) short list of the outstanding books I read in 2015. The following are the rest, in order of reading…
The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer – A much longer reworking of the author’s excellent TED talk about the nature of relationships as currency, this both loses some of the power of its argument through expansion and benefits from the open book charm of the author. There’s a huge whack of autobiography here, built around the central discussion about relationships and community, and while I’m not that interested in Palmer herself (her music doesn’t work for me) there’s no question that she tells good stories. That said, she’s self-consciously bohemian throughout, to a fault, leading me to wonder how limited a picture she’s painting of herself (I suspect only those parts which support the central conceit of the book appear in it). As for that central conceit, the art and act of asking, I’ve no doubt it really does reflect how Palmer has lived much of her life. Those seeking a quick fix to apply to the development of their own audiences should look elsewhere, as what the author has achieved may not be repeatable, and would take many years to achieve even if it is. There are plenty of sound ideas scattered through the book, but they’re a radical alternative philosophy rather than something to be mimicked or cherry picked. A book that’s worth your time and some thought, but that also needs to be parsed through the reality most of us have to live in.
Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks – My plan was to read the Culture series of novels by Iain M Banks in 2015, a series of books I felt a bit embarrassed about not having read when the author passed away last year. I have changed that plan. It was a bad plan. My new plan is not to read the Culture series of novels at all. I found Consider Phlebas to be disappointing on just about every level, and genuinely struggle to see why it is held in such high esteem by so many. The characterisation is thin to the point of invisibility, while the pacing is achingly glacial. I don’t need a novel to speed by to enjoy it, not at all, but I expect the EXCITING bits to feel a bit brisk. In Consider Phlebas, they do not. I’ll happily concede that many of the backdrops Banks creates are spectacular, but I concede that about The Phantom Menace too. Spectacular backdrops do not a great story make. The Culture itself is interesting, as are several of the passing concepts and ideas, and these are perhaps the basis for something great happening in the next book, but after a long month fighting to get through Phlebas it will take some convincing to make me find out. This is obviously the correct cup of tea for many people, but not me I’m afraid.
Keeping Up With The Joneses, Nick Harkaway – A novella focussing around the Tenth Doctor, as played by David Tennant on that tellybox. It’s short enough not to bore, and cracks along with the feverish energy you’d associate with this iteration of the character. Tennant’s performance is captured particularly well on the page, which in itself will be all you need to know to tell you whether you’re going to like the tale. The plot itself only makes half a sense, and hangs on a concept (the TARDIS is infinitely big, and contains multitudes) that has been better explored elsewhere, but it rattles along and is intensely likeable despite its flaws.
The Pendragon Protocol, Philip Purser-Hallard – An unusual book, in a refreshing way. Rather than being a straightforward Arthurian fantasy (or one of the many tales in which the one true king returns in our hour of need, and etc, and yawn), The Pendragon Protocol takes the central expectations of this kind of novel and twists them around. The Circle are an official body, combating those threats from old that appear in modern Britain, and yes, each of the key players is ‘possessed’ by the essence of a particular knight from old. However, the possession is an unclear thing. Perhaps it really is a spirit, but more likely it’s a sort of meme – individuals identifying so strongly with certain characteristics that they take them on and are enhanced by them. That’s the notion in a nutshell, but it splits and divides in all sorts of interesting ways – for example, while identification with a knight might allow certain enhanced abilities (a possibly psychosomatic response), how much does the story of the knight influence the behaviour of the holder? Is Lancelot destined always to fall from grace through uncontrolled passions? Must Mordred necessarily be scheming and manipulative? And so on.
There’s a great deal going on here intellectually, and each idea is one which you could easily get lost in were it not for the witty, self-aware storytelling. The book doesn’t forget to tell a thrilling story, of memes, and politics, and (of course) derring do. If there’s a fault for me it is that the conclusion of the book felt anti-climactic. It’s not as though I was unaware that this is the first of a trilogy, but I would have appreciated a more defined ending within this particular volume. This is quibbling though. The Pendragon Protocol is a fresh and exciting fantasy, with wit, heart, and intellect all thrown into the mix. I thoroughly recommend it.
Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett – This is a difficult book to review fairly. I want to be kind, given the traumas the author was enduring when he wrote it. On the other hand, I don’t want to pander. I’ll start then by pointing out that Pratchett is, in my view, one of the greatest populist storytellers of the last six decades. I’ve been an avid reader of his Discworld series since I was a teen, and his death affected me as though I knew him. No other author has woven themselves so intrinsically and joyfully through my life to date.
With that acknowledged, Raising Steam is not a book I would give to somebody to demonstrate why. It’s themes have been more deftly explored in previous volumes, the writing is clunky where it would usually glide, and the pace is glacial. There’s little sense of threat throughout the book, and almost no reason to care what happens to the protagonists. It presents a two-dimensional Discworld, that only loosely relates to the place in which I’ve spent so much time. That there are good real-world reasons for why does not alter the fact that, in my opinion, nothing in the vast canon of Discworld stuff is as weak as this. I can’t recommend Raising Steam to anybody other than the most loyal completists. There are dozens of Pratchett novels to exhaust before you come to this one. Read those instead.
Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall – As with his previous book Born To Run, McDougall takes two narratives and attempts to weave them together and let them reflect on each other. In the previous book the narratives were a real life tale of an ultra marathon set against the theoretical evolutionary providence of barefoot running. They made for natural bedfellows, and resulted in one of the most inspiring books I’ve read. This time around the narratives are disjointed. The first is about the remarkable feats pulled off on the isle of Crete by a band of misfits and rebels during the Second World War. The other is about… well… several things which never quite gel. There’s some interesting stuff about the nature of heroism and whether it’s best sought amongst thieves and anarchists, other bits about the natural elasticity of the body and parkour, further bits about what amounts to the paleo diet and its potential benefits, and… well, even more than that. Any one of these threads could have informed a book, and while they may all have some relevance to the tales of Crete that McDougall describes in possibly more detail than most would be interested in, none of them are fully peeled apart in quite the same way running was in the first book. This is a bit of a stew that doesn’t hang together as well as I would have liked. All of the ingredients are tasty enough, but none of them are really allowed to come to the fore and individually impress.
A Song of Shadows, John Connolly – The most remarkable thing about this book relies on everything that has come before in order to really startle – there’s no first person point of view narration from the nominal hero, detective Charlie Parker. In each of the many previous stories the narrative has been split between Parker’s point of view and those around him (and sometimes an intrusive authorial voice on top of those). Here we stay out of Parker’s head, and the impact is refreshing. Instead of a wry and often comical narrator, we have an exhausted and wounded man seen mostly from the outside. The wounds are figurative but also literal, for Parker spends much of this novel recovering from an attack in the previous one which he barely survived. His weakness and attempted rehabilitation are folded into his parts of the story and give it extra weight. However, this is a book of two halves. The first focuses very much on a murder in Parker’s vicinity and a truly vile killer who is obviously destined to come face to face with the weakened detective. This culminates and effectively concludes halfway through the story, and with it goes a great deal of carefully wrought tension. The second half, in which old nazis are tracked and dealt with, is effectively an interesting aside (and Parker’s ultimate solution is too blunt and casual to really justify the build up). As such, the second half of the book failed to engage me with the same vigour as the first. It’s all beautifully written, and there are some intriguing developments in Parker’s relationships with both his living and dead daughters (and their relationship with one another…), but for all its shining character work the narrative here doesn’t quite hold up to the usual scrutiny.
Salt of the Earth, Trudi Canavan – If this short story turned up in an anthology then I would have skimmed through it and forgotten it almost on the instant. There’s nothing wrong with it, but nor is there anything that grabbed my attention. The Third Doctor and Jo Grant are well written, but neither are examined enough to call this a character piece. The plot is a modest thing, slightly diverting but lacking any real sense of threat or surprise. The ecological theme, well suited to this Doctor, is heavy-handed but informative. Basically, this story happened for a bit and then stopped. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Coldbrook, Tim Lebbon – It’s been difficult to find something new to do with zombies after they’ve dominated the horror genre for so long, and Lebbon doesn’t wrap himself up in knots trying. The zombies are as you’d hope for, brainless and hungry, and their spread across first America and then the world is fast and furious. The author paints the zombification of the Earth with graphic effectiveness, but doesn’t stop there. This time the zombies are both brought on mankind through his own folly (scientists meddling with forces beyond their ken, naturally), and inflicted by an outside force. There are other Earths out there which have already been annihilated by the undead, and a powerful force behind them which might have an ulterior motive that can be unravelled and challenged… Lebbon mixes alternate Earths with the zombie holocaust I signed on for to increase the scale of the horror exponentially. A world destroyed by the undead is bad enough, but countless? There are proper frights to be had in Coldbrook, particularly as one survivor of the outbreak is stalked through silent corridors by something impossible and horrific, and wonders too.
Mayhem, Sarah Pinborough – There’s nothing like a happy ending. Really. In Pinborough’s world, happy endings are not a thing. The end of her novel Mayhem, to which this effectively forms a second part, wasn’t even that happy anyway. A demon and murderer were stopped, but the unlikely team of unheroes responsible were each damaged in devastating ways in the process. An optimistic reader might have decided to believe that the characters would grow past the horrors they had experienced, but Pinborough is on hand to demonstrate that no, life is brutal and painful and pointless and cruel. Picking up a few years after the tragedies of Mayhem, just as Dr Thomas Bond is indeed beginning to believe that what he experienced during the Ripper years might have been a misremembered nightmare, the author thrusts him straight back into the hell he escaped. This time there’s little room for doubt by the end of the book. Happy endings are for other people. As bleak a way to close a story (and it really does appear to be closed) as I’ve read in years, full of historical weight and detail, and characters that continue to surprise.
Devourer of Souls, Kevin Lucia – If you read and enjoyed his collection Things Slip Through last year, then you know what you’re getting here. It’s more of the same from Lucia, save that this contains two novellas within a linking framework in place of the more numerous shorter stories last time around. The author handles the small town horror sub-genre as well as anybody currently writing, and his fictional Clifton Heights sits comfortably among the many other such places on the literary horror reader’s tourist map.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch – A book I couldn’t quite abandon, despite several times feeling the urge. The setup, probably a full quarter of the book, feels smug and contrived and takes forever to actually get anywhere, with the group of con-men known as The Gentlemen Bastards (lead by the titular Lamora) leading lives so charmed that any potential drama or intrigue is completely undercut. When, finally, the mysterious Grey King starts to make his presence felt in the (admittedly fascinating) city of Camorr there is a welcome injection of peril that begins to move things along at pace, and almost makes the insufferable setup worthwhile – the Bastards are thrown into levels of intrigue and danger far outwith their comfort zone, and the reader is finally carried along with them. The final quarter of the book seems to slow down just as it should be charging onwards, but scores are settled, daring escapes made, and intrigues resolved. None of this displeased me, but it’s too long by far and finishing it was ultimately a chore.
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks – The mysterious wanderer and wizard Gandallon visits Shadyshire to recruit the innocuous Sheado to help him defeat the dark lord Broron by taking a ancient artefact of power to the forbidding peaks of Northdor, assisted by a company including a warrior king who is evading his responsibilities, a surly dwarf, elves, and Sheodo’s own hapless companions. The company is separated, the armies of Northdor invade and lay a mighty human stronghold to siege, and the fate of the world rests in the hands of the hands of the least likely.
So shamelessly a clone of The Lord of the Rings that it’s scarcely worth commenting on. Beat for beat. Plot point for plot point. There’s a Gandalf, a Frodo, an Aragorn, a Gollum, a Sauron, a Samwise, two Legolas’s, a Gimli, a Theodon, a Grima Wormtongue, and more. The writing is flat and charmless, the characters have almost no depth, and the levels of repetitive introspection (in which characters have a nice long detailed think about events YOU HAVE ALREADY READ AND DO NOT NEED DESCRIBED ALL OVER AGAIN THANK YOU VERY MUCH YOU ONLY JUST MANAGED TO GET THROUGH THE FIRST ITERATION) are clumsy, painful, and make the book a third longer than it has any right to be. Somehow I managed to really like The Sword Of Shannara when I was in my teens, but this re-read goes to show that some things from your youth are better left there. I seem to remember liking some of the other Shannara books that followed even more than this one, but now I am too scared to read them.
The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett – After the mess that was Raising Steam I almost didn’t read this final Discworld novel. I’m glad I changed my mind. It’s underdeveloped, being written only to an interim draft by Pratchett before he passed, but it’s familiarly, recognisably Discworld, something that the previous book failed to accomplish. For obvious reasons it’s the weakest of the Tiffany Aching books, but its basic theme – the old guard passing to make way for the new – is so entwined in the author’s own circumstances as he wrote that it’s difficult not to be carried along by the poignancy. A far better end point for the Discworld, allowing a farewell to the creation as well as its maker that I felt cheated of before. By no means the place to begin reading Pratchett, but a perfectly sweet coda to what for me has been a lifetime of reading.
Aftermath, Chuck Wendig – This appears to be a bit of a marmite novel among Star Wars fanatics, some of whom loathe and some of whom love it. As somebody who enjoys the movies without having ever fallen into the fandom proper, my reaction was somewhere in the middle. I liked that the novel stays away, for the most part, from characters we already know, setting up a new bunch to take forward in what appears to be a trilogy of stories. None are spectacularly woven, being born of broad strokes and familiar tropes, but they fill their larger than life remits as you would hope. The adventure bounces along – aided by the immediacy of a third person present perspective – across a galaxy midway between the old repressive order and the new. The New Republic is not yet in place, the Empire not quite defeated, and there is political uncertainty at every turn. There’s also an insanely amped up battle droid slaughtering stormtroopers with psychotic glee, so something for everybody, sort of. If you’re expecting this to be the Great Expectations of media spin-off fiction you will indeed be disappointed. As a warm up act for a new movie though, it does the trick.
Perdido Street Station, China Mieville – Perdido Street Station is a novel that gets extra marks for the scale and splendour of the city and society in which it’s set, but not FULL marks because it’s entirely too comfortable repeatedly killing its own pace to show you the same city from an angle only slightly different from the many angles it has already displayed. For what is at heart an adventure story, this is a problem. When freelance thinker Isaac tries to tackle a seemingly impossible scientific problem, he inadvertently unleashes a nightmarish whisper of demonic moths over the city. Then he has to hunt them down. That’s the central thrust of the plot, but Mieville takes you on a journey full of side quests and distractions. Some are well developed and satisfying sub plots. Some are indulgent and poorly conceived afterthoughts that leave you aching for events to circle back to the central arc. I can’t fault the novel’s ambition and whimsy, but it’s a mixed bag that isn’t entirely successful. Still, Mieville is a fabulous stylist and this is a welcome change in tone from other fantasies I’ve tried recently. A sometimes colourful, sometimes gothic sprawl of a book, that achieves a great deal more than it possibly intended, while falling short of its initial intention.
Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons – You know how sometimes you feel like a book must have taken you two years to read, and then you check, and JESUS GOD THIS TOOK ME MORE THAN TWO YEARS TO READ!
Carrion Comfort just failed to grab me. I put it down four or five times during its crawl to a resolution, and each time it was months before I could motivate myself to pick it up again. It’s epically long – and really feels it – but for me doesn’t earn the time it spends setting up intricate relationships and scenarios only to underwhelm with a fairly straightforward conclusion. It’s well written at any given point, in a straightforward sort of way that the author has matured from, has a marvellous central conceit that establishes vampires in a genuinely novel and disturbing way, and…well…lots of good bits along the way. Lots of needless bits too, where the author moves his pieces about the board in too much excruciating detail and I started to switch off. The opening fifth is brilliantly engaging, then some things happen, then there’s a tremendous bit in the middle, then lots and lots of things happen, and there’s an ending that disappoints after all of the shuffling, because I was hanging in and hoping for something more. I’ve loved some of Simmons’s later work, but this left me tired and disappointed.
The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Albino’s Treasure, Stuart Douglas – A breezy way to finish off my fiction reading for 2015. As is common in the current run of Holmes fiction from Titan, The Albino’s Treasure mashes the great detective up with another period-suitable genre character to see what happens. In this case it is the amoral Zenith, from the not dissimilar Sexton Blake stories, who receives the dubious honour of being chased about a bit by Holmes and Watson, and the result is highly readable. The nature of these mash ups segues them off from Doyle’s own shaky continuity, making them more pastiche than some readers might prefer (and the inclusion of a more doltish Watson than ever appeared in the original stories seals that impression), but there’s a lot of fun to be had with the concept, and Douglas does not shy away from delivering it.
What If?, Randall Munro – I picked this up on a whim without realising that it is written by the guy who writes the xkcd webcomics, opened it, and got completely lost in the real science behind absurd scenarios. What would be the logistics involved in getting together if we only had one actual soulmate on the whole planet? How far does a steak have to fall before it would be cooked by the rushing air? If everybody on the planet stayed away from each other for long enough, would it kill the common cold? And is it even possible?
The writing is witty and good-natured enough not to lose you when the science gets tough, making this a treat from start to finish. It doesn’t get a full five stars only because the author has foolishly omitted the answers to dozens of hypothetical questions I would now like to put to him based on the ones he answered here, the swine. Monroe appears to be a living Google (um, operator…which is always preferable to the dead kind), perfectly prepared to work things out so you don’t have to.
Onwards to 2016!
Tagged 2015, a song of shadows, aftermath, amanda palmer, carrion comfort, china mieville, christopher mcdougall, chuck wendig, consider phlebas, dan simmons, iain m banks, john connolly, keeping up with the joneses, kevin lucia, murder, natural born heroes, neil gaiman, nick harkaway, perdido street station, philip purser-hallard, raising steam, randall munroe, reading list, salt of the earth, sarah pinborough, scott lynch, sword of shannara, terry brooks, terry pratchett, the art of asking, the devourer of souls, the lies of locke lamora, the pendragon protocol, the wolf in winter, trigger warnings, trudi canavan, what if?