And a happy new year to you too!
No, that sounds old fashioned now. A relic from a simpler, happier age. We need something more appropriate to the times.
May nuclear winter be ever at your heels!
Somehow that feels like the best we can hope for. THANKS AMERICA.
Still, even nuclear winter would be better than looking at a photograph of President Trump’s aging penis, and it’s really only a matter of time before he tweets just such a snapshot for the attention of North Korea and anybody else who’s unfortunate enough to be watching. In all likelihood the image will also include one of his tiny, tiny hands, because his tiny, tiny hands make almost anything they are next to look like part of a giant.
So many images.
No year end / look forward blogging from me. It wouldn’t cheer you up at all. Instead, books. Books are the best place to live now. Here are my top five books visited in 2017, in no particular order, with my reviews at the time.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North – Claire North is my discovery of the year, and after starting with Harry I moved on to read everything she has written under this pen name. Her other works that could have taken this slot are The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch, and The Gameshouse trilogy. I’m choosing to highlight Harry here because it was my first sample of North’s extraordinary blend of hyper-relevant commentary, high-concept science fiction / fantasy, wit, and sometimes mind-bending horror. She has since become my favourite author. Full stop.
“Imagine that when you die you are reborn, at precisely the same moment that you were born before, but that you remember everything you lived last time, and can change anything you like this time. Then imagine that it happens again, and again, to you and a handful of others, who you meet in each recurrence. Imagine the knowledge you might accrue, and the things you could do with it. This is that story. Harry August, not his real name, is an Ouroboran, living through the Twentieth century on a loop, seeking new experiences in each life and satisfied in their accrual. Then one day, on one of his many deathbeds, a young girl tells him that the end of the world is drawing closer for each lifetime he lives, and leaves it to him to find out why. The result is an exceptionally twisty tale of investigation and betrayal looping through the same decades over and over, as Harry first finds the culprit and then must defeat him.
And hell’s bells, it’s good. Crisp, beautiful, unhurried storytelling, witty and profound, exhilarating and challenging. Harry is an incredibly charming narrator, who sometimes describes horrors (his experiences in one life being tortured for his own knowledge of the future are bleak), but is sufficiently distanced by his ultimate survival to do so with a sort of wry detachment that makes the extraordinary almost homely. And conceptually, there is some extraordinary stuff going on. Whether it’s Harry coming to terms with the circumstances of his birth and the father who abandoned him, or the delicious friendship he builds with the individual who will ultimately destroy the world, the novel uses its inhuman concept (for these characters are in many ways beyond human) to peel its cast apart and show as many shades of grey as it can. There’s some interesting science and philosophy thrown into the mix, some jaunts into some of the most interesting cultures and nations of the century at critical moments (always with purpose, never just to sightsee), and a wealth of detail that sucks you past the brilliantly high-concept premise to drop you into a single extraordinary life.
It’s sometimes disturbing, other times outright funny, charmingly rambling and meditative, and frequently satirical in an off-the-wall way. Most of all, it’s a glorious ride from start to finish.”
All The Birds In The Sky, Charlie Jane Anders – “A beautifully spun yarn of misfits, near-future catastrophe, superscience, magic, and friendship, All The Birds In The Sky ignores genre boundaries to create something almost unique and entirely charming. It begins as a sort of familiar YA story exploring the developing childhood friendship of a young girl who discovers magic and a young boy who invents a supercomputer in his bedroom closer. It’s a semi-familiar tale given spiky edges, and it’s here that the story dwells most purely in the realm of Magical Realism (for even the science at this stage is informed by fantasy and wish-fulfilment).
When the novel shifts to catch up with the two misfits in later life, Lawrence is part of a secret pool of scientists seeking ways to escape a dying world and Patricia has become a member of a magical order which instead attempts to heal the damage done, or at least alleviate some of its consequences. By this point the science has sharpened up into something which (for the most part) is recognisably from a possible future, and as the story weaves between and blends magic and science all ideas of genre fall away. Patricia and Lawrence – each immersed in their separate ideologies – meet again, clash, fall deeply in love, and accidentally rush the world towards annihilation.
It’s sweet, really.
No, I mean it. For all of the dystopian trappings the book ends up wearing, at its heart is a simple and lasting friendship which might bloom to romance if a few misunderstandings can be wrinkled out. The story is as much about ‘feels’ as ‘stuff’. What prevents it from ever being reductive is that Anders writes this very recognisable dysfunctional/functional relationship to focus not so much on the big things that every book about a relationship concentrates on, but about the idiosyncratic details and oddities which (when you read them) are instantly recognisable, but which rarely form the structure of a narrative in this way. The emotional roadmap is familiar, but the handcrafted detailing is so exquisite, unusual, and funny that it feels brand new. I’ve read reviews comparing Anders to various authors, and her genre fusions invite extensive comparisons depending on what aspects leap to the foreground for you, but for me she feels like a welcome intruder in Neil Gaiman’s natural territory, casting fresh eyes over an already compelling landscape.
Funny, compelling, deeply engaging.”
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker – “In which a golem is newly born and finds herself masterless and alone in New York in 1899, at the same time as a Jinni long imprisoned in a lamp is released in a backroom in the same city after centuries of imprisonment. They find places where they might fit in, or at least stand out less obviously, in the Jewish and Syrian quarters of the city. They struggle to assimilate, make friends and lose them, find one another and go their separate ways, make poor decisions and majestic ones, are hunted and face crises together. At its most basic this is a spellbinding tale of magical realism, with evil wizards, monsters, and fairytales. On the other hand that isn’t what it is at all, because it’s actually about the great migrations, and the struggle to integrate, and the clash of cultures, and how that needn’t matter at all because people are ultimately much the same, and food and art and love are universal.
This is a vast canvas of a book, at home in two cultures and none. It’s theme of integration is all the more topical for not having been written after Brexit and Trump, and all the more poignant for being a hope instead of a reaction. It’s epic in scope and tiny in its scale. There are flaws, certainly – the New York seen here is more representative than accurate, real within the story in ways it probably never was in life, but it is an appropriate New York for this tale, serving its purpose as a tantalising backdrop while allowing the focus to rest in the hearts of the characters.
This is a spectacular demonstration of what fantasy can achieve.”
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – “Functioning as both a post and pre-apocalyptic novel, and perfectly comfortable in both positions, Station Eleven is a remarkable and sweeping story following characters and their legacies across more than two decades. It begins with the death on stage of actor Arthur Leander two days before a staggeringly fast and brutal flu pandemic decimates humanity, then darts back and forth through time, showing Arthur’s life and that of those around him, and following their ripples through to the far side of the end of the world where a group of travelling players wander North America performing music and Shakespeare to the communities that survive.
Despite considering a potentially grim period for humanity, the novel steers far clear of the usual desolation and bleakness you might expect from such fare. Sections set before the flu are considered vignettes of all that will be lost, yes, but they’re so character driven that they come alive as their own distinct part of the whole. The story has no interest in mawkish poignancy, and while the cuts between past and future eras highlight their differences, they avoid any implications that either is better or worse. The period of the flu is seen briefly and sporadically throughout the book, but more time is spent two decades after, when life has normalised and the reduced circumstances of the species are the new normal. There’s tension here and there, even sharp, brief segues into horror, but these are ever in service of a larger examination of hope and human nature and never the point in and of themselves.
What binds the disparate sections of the book into a whole is humanity itself, and how it reflects itself in art and life. Shakespeare. Beethoven. An unfinished graphic novel that gives the book its title. The stories people tell themselves about who they are and who they could be permeate the page. Mandel writes wonderfully, lingering on details here and there, dragging her large cast along when it’s required. For a book that covers such ground with such conviction this is a fast read, and one that it is hard to let go of come the end. Like the very best post-apocalyptic fiction (and this is the most unusual and affecting such tale that I’ve read since The Road), Station Eleven functions not to highlight horrors but to give a platform for hope. It’s extraordinary, and whether genre fiction is your thing or not you should give this one a go.”
Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, Susanna Clarke – “In short, a dusty gentleman called Mr Norrell attempts to bring magic back to the world, and along the way takes on a flamboyant assistant called Jonathan Strange who soon outshines him. They have a disagreement. A creature from the realms of magic takes umbrage against them. There are twists, and some turns.
A nutshell summary of this massive book does it no justice at all. It’s an exceptionally rich read, full of complex, flawed characters, told with a dry and infectious academic wit, that sketches out a whole alternate history crammed with anecdotes and short stories in the footnotes alone. It’s often funny, sometimes cruel, and utterly immersive (as some of you will know, that is the highest praise I can give a fiction). The beginning moves slowly as the necessarily rather difficult to savour Mr Norrell begins his mission, but when Strange arrives on the scene it cracks along. Seeds sown early reap an abundance of fruit later on, and the sprawling narrative takes so many unexpected turns along the way that I found myself constantly delighted. Clarke subverts the natural structure of a story like this at every opportunity, with even the show-stopping climax delivering deliciously unpredictable shifts and balances that took me by surprise. It soaked up almost a month of my reading year, but doesn’t feel that way. When I was away from it, I wanted only to return. I wish I hadn’t read it at all, so that I could now read it for the first time.
This is probably one of my favourite books now. So there.”
Yes, they’re all by women. No, that isn’t an accident.
Last year, having realised that I was reading hardly any fiction written by women, and not being able to properly explain how or why that had happened, I decided to read only books by female writers during 2017.
It went well extraordinarily well. I fell behind blogging the books I read sometime towards the end of summer (alongside blogging on all other matters), but here’s what I got through on Goodreads if you want to see the full list.
I still don’t know why I wasn’t reading much work by women. I hope it wasn’t through any inherent bias. I don’t feel like I ever made a conscious decision to focus on male writers. Perhaps it was because my reading habits – my comfort zone – was formed in a different publishing era, when women were struggling even more to see themselves published than they are now. The first stories I loved were all by men, and maybe I got trapped in a pattern defined by that.
Or perhaps it’s because major publishers and the media still devote more publicity to men than women, particularly in genre fiction (which is what I’m most likely to want to read), making it more likely that I’ll find male voices when I need something new to read. Are the odds stacked that way? Probably.
Whatever. I know that if I hadn’t made the particular and deliberate effort to ignore the voices I’m most familiar with for twelve months then I would probably never have discovered most of these books, including those by my new hands-down favourite author of all time Clare North. That would have been criminal.
So, no particular point to make except that if you’re a person who likes to read stories, please take a look at your last few authors. If they all look sort of the same, what’s the harm in deliberately stepping back and looking for something else every now and again? I can confirm that those comfortable voices you’ve been relying on will wait for you to come back to them, and you might – probably will – find new favourite authors to add to your arsenal. Give it a whirl.
And of course, as in reading so in life. There are all sorts of selfless reasons to embrace diversity, which are definitely the best and most principled ones. Bubbling under though are the selfish ones. When you embrace diversity, you immediately have access to a lot more good stuff.
Everyone wins, see? Take that into 2018 and ride it, why don’t you?
Tagged all the birds in the sky, best of 2017, book reviews, charlie jane anders, claire north, emily st john mandel, helene wecker, jonathan strange and mister norrell, station eleven, susanna clarke, the first fifteen lives of harry august, the golem and the jinni, women authors