Bookworming again

I commented a while back that this was at risk of turning into nothing but a bookblog, and I suspect that 2014 will see it go one step further and become largely dormant as my bookblogging transitions across to LibraryThing. However, I started so I’ll finish – my final round-up of 2013 before my look back at the year to see whether any of it was really up to scratch.

Jeff Noon – Falling Out of Cars
I first read Noon at university, and was swept away by the hallucinatory prose, James Joyce (or maybe Alan Garner) on an LSD kick against the backdrop of a rain-soaked future Manchester. On the strength of his first two novels, I picked up everything that followed, even as I found them increasingly difficult to get to grips with. Falling Out Of Cars had been sat on the shelf for about a decade unread, and it wasn’t hard to see why I abandoned it back then. It’s magnificently written in the sense that you can tell Noon has total control of his output – but when his fractured poetry is describing a world jaggedly reflected in the shards of a broken mirror, it descends into total incomprehensibility. I forced myself to finish it, but didn’t enjoy it – there’s just not enough to hold onto (as this is the main theme of the novel, I can’t fault the execution – but ooph. Never again).

Catherynne Valente – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making
I had heard a lot about Ms Valente (mostly from ) but had never quite got to grips with Palimpsest (which stays on my TBR for 2014). Girl was a Kindle offer that appealed, and after a slightly slow start as I got a handle on the style, I found myself swept along by the knowing assault on fairytale tropes. Our heartless heroine September is carried away by the (frankly slightly creepy) West Wind to Fairyland, where he abandons her to have adventures without giving her any of the usual Instructions. As a well-travelled visitor to Faery, this left me in the passenger seat like an audience member at a pantomime, shrieking ‘he’s behind you’ and ‘you don’t want to do that’ to my heart’s content. Inventive and bittersweet, this joined my pantheon of books to read to children: September is independent, resourceful, brave, stubborn and kind without always being particularly nice. A rollercoaster tour of a Fairyland struggling with a new regime, with veiled satire on nanny states and governmental controls for those who are looking for them.

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight
I’d fancied Daughter since it was first released – it looked like a juxtaposition of angelfolk and faeriefolk in modern day Prague, which sounded magical. And there’s a lot to like here – the writing style is polished enough, and the world-building of the chimaera delivers well against the novel’s promise, being both magical and dark (swapping teeth for spells – any teeth; don’t ask too many questions about the teeth, you won’t like the answers). But this turns out to be Young Adult fiction of the Paranormal Romance variety rather than a new Night Watch, and much of the book is given over to just how Mary Sue the heroine Karou is (mostly because she has magically enhanced herself, as it turns out, but until this becomes clear she’s annoyingly pretty, talented, multilingual, kick-ass, blue-haired, and generally perfect if rather self-absorbed and short-tempered) with a huge side-helping of horrible ex-boyfriend and unlikely new insta-romance in the form of honest-to-God Angel (definitely of the wrathful variety) Akiva who tries to kill her and promptly falls in love with her. Urgh.

I gritted my teeth and focused on the world and the plot behind the irritation, which got me to Days. Here the plot splits into 2, with the current day storyline becoming entirely darker and more interesting (and romance-free!) while the past storyline explains why Akiva fell so hard and dishes up a second serve of romance (still annoying, but less cloyingly unreal – or perhaps slightly more balanced – than in Daughter).

All in all, probably most easily digested by teenagers, and requires both something to stop your teeth grinding and a massive suspension of disbelief to get past the convenient plot devices, but there’s entertaining fluff underneath it all and I will complete the trilogy when the final instalment is released. Because I do have a soft spot for War on Heaven analogues ( I blame you).

PD James – Children of Men
I saw the film some years back, and have always been curious to see how PD James tackled dystopia – well, as it turns out. I’d go so far as to say the film is inspired by the novel, as there are significant differences in the details. A slow-building storm, this is a future in which a totalitarian Britain must step up to the challenges of an aging population after men have become infertile; where dolls have replaced babies for desperate would-be mothers; where religion can offer little hope; and where the last generation of youth is a beautiful, careless, cruel breed. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with The Ice People (another novel of social dysfunction and declining fertility), and arguably just as bleak – unless you can believe (against most of the evidence) that Theo is a good man at heart, and above the corruptions of power. The novel takes on religion, morality, privilege and corruption and offers an intriguing glimpse of a hopeless future that I found more interesting than the main plot (can Theo safeguard the pregnant woman and see her baby safely born). Difficult, rewarding, and one I shall definitely revisit in future.

Stanislaw Lem – Solaris
Another classic that I thought I ought to have read as well as seen (I say seen: I’ve always fallen asleep about half an hour in; this should have served as a warning), this could be a fascinating convergence of science, psychology and horror, but that doesn’t appear to be what Lem really had in mind. Half of the novel is given over to the fictional science of Solaris (written as fairly dry treatise so you take it Seriously – I assume Lem was trying to make it feel real, but I just found it hard going), and the other half focuses on the ever-decreasing circles of the tiny crew left on the station trying to withstand the sentient planet’s attempts to communicate with them. Or possibly destroy them. Fundamentally, the point here is that alien intelligence is alien, and there’s no particular reason to think we’ll be able to understand what it wants or is trying to say, even when it takes a familiar shape. All of which still sounds intriguing, but the execution didn’t work for me at all. As with much classic scifi, the inherent sexism made me angry (I know it’s the period it was written in; not the point – I accept that the flaws are to be expected, but I don’t enjoy the results), and ultimately the novel focused least on the bits I found most interesting.

Scott Lynch – The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and The Republic of Thieves
Locke Lamora is one of my favourite recent entries into the fantasy pantheon, and Lies continues to be one of my favourite books on the strength of its wicked gleefulness, dashing amorality, and rollercoaster plot. Seas picks up the threads and weaves pirates into the awesome tapestry of swashbuckling con artistry. Republic, the latest entry in the series, focuses on magic, state politics, and – after 2 novels of distant wishfulness – the love interest makes her long-awaited appearance and promptly steals the show (she’s a thief; what would you expect). Lynch has been criticised for being self-indulgent, over-long, and bad at writing women; to which I can only offer his Drakasha rebuttal (damn it, it’s his fantasy, and if he chooses to write middle-aged female pirate captains with 2 children as well as 2 swords, it’s his imagination and what the hell is wrong with a bit of wish fulfilment, eh?) and now the Sabetha riposte (she’s a more traditional fantasy stereotype, with her quick wits, long red hair and fiery temper, but – after much, much reflection – I like her refusal to be a simple object of adoration for Locke; she demands to be taken seriously, to be treated as an equal, and to be loved in her own right rather than as an archetype – and she alone will be the arbiter of whether her conditions are met). Republic sees Locke and Jean go up against Sabetha in a war of wits, and interweaves the history of her/Locke’s teenaged love affair. This is almost as good as it sounds for regular readers – but I found the past more of a distraction than a useful counterpoint (unlike in Lies, where the forays into the past served to illustrate and introduce points that were relevant), and I would have preferred more time and detail lavished on the ‘modern’ day political game. Overall, I think this will age better, but it struggled to live up to the level of expectation I foisted on it after the long wait. Still, I’m looking forward to volume 4.

Peter Heller – The Dog Stars
This one is tricky for me. I enjoy a good post-apocalyptic read, and this novel is set in Colorado, so I got to read it with my inner eye firmly in the right landscape, which I think helped enormously – but it’s actually fairly flimsy and rather problematic. I suspect I will revisit it in the future, but it wasn’t really what I hoped. When a virus wipes out 90%+ of the population, the US falls apart – every man for himself (and the novel is largely populated by men). Pilot/poet Hig lives on a small rural airport with a survivalist gun nut, having lost everything he cares about except his plane and his dog; whether he has the ruthlessness or even the will to survive this harsh new world is in question – as is whether his death will be through his own carelessness or at the hands of his short-tempered protector. The first half is introspective and reaches for haunting; but when Hig finally takes it on himself to go in search of whoever sent a long-ago radio broadcast from another airfield in the mountains, the story changes into an absurd wish fulfilment of usefully-talented and conveniently-interested love interest and more gun nuttery. Yes, any man probably looks good when he’s the last man on earth other than your Dad, but nothing in the second half of the novel really holds together – it’s more like a Boys Own novel dashed out by an adolescent than in keeping with the sparse hopelessness of the first half. Awkward.

Joyce Carol Oates – The Corn Maiden
I bought this on the strength of A Fair Maiden, but found it a rather disappointing collection of short stories – in theory more glimpses into the horrors of modern America. Oates is a good writer, but her characters (as in A Fair Maiden) are universally unlikeable and less real-feeling in the short stories where there’s less room for them to breathe. The outcome is a set of unpleasant stories about unpleasant people that are often unresolved.

Amy Sackville – Orkney
A novella rather than a novel, this slim volume dances down the lines between dream, poetry, myth and literature. An aging professor marries a mysterious student and takes her to her birthplace on an outer isle of Orkney for their honeymoon. As he attempts to work (but is mostly distractedly obsessed by her), she spends her days staring at the sea and her nights dreaming of drowning until she disappears. This novel is an exercise in lightly-drawn suggestion, leaving the reader to do all the work of interpretation and giving few clues on what the author’s preferred reading may be – is the girl a figment of his imagination? A selkie? Niviane to the professor’s Merlin? Has he killed her? It’s impossible to say, but there’s plenty to appreciate along the way.

Paul Hoffman – The Left Hand of God
I picked this up second-hand and am considering burning it, it’s that good. The writing is average, the characters are flimsy, the setting is awkward, the sexism is horrific and the plot is basic – and the back cover (and title) undermine the grand reveal at the end. This is meant to be the set-up novel for a big (presumably grimdark) fantasy sequence, but I don’t even have enough interest after volume 1 to go looking on the Interweb for a synopsis of what happens next. I hope rocks fall, and everybody dies.

Sean Pidgeon – Finding Camlann
Basically the Arthurian answer to The Da Vinci Code – an archaeologist seeks the burial place of King Arthur, assisted by a lady who works for the OED, who comes related to Welsh political activists, ancient blood lines, and the last would-be incarnation of Merlin. Driven by coincidence, this is easy airplane reading and does manage to be less irritating than Dan Brown, but is at best on par with Robert Harris. You’ll see everything coming long before it’s supposedly intelligent, educated and expert protagonists do. Entertaining fluff.

Guy Halsall – Worlds of Arthur
The obvious way to follow up massmarket Arthurian fiction – a considered assault on the historical (and archaeological) approach to Dark Age Britain. I thoroughly enjoyed this deconstruction of the past 200 years of Arthurian investigation, although I’d advise against starting here if you don’t have the context of some of these past histories – Halsall expects his readers to be familiar with the Dark Age histories, French mediaeval romances, and ongoing arguments about the dissolution of Roman Britain and the realities of Saxon invasions. If you’ve only seen King Arthur (or The Sword in the Stone), you’ll find this difficult. If you’ve got an ongoing lay interest in the period / topic, this is a brilliant addition – easy to read, engaging, and fascinating in perspective. This is the history that Finding Camlann‘s protagonist was told couldn’t be published as nobody would read it (because the public wants to know who Arthur was, not all the reasons he wasn’t), and I’m delighted to see it exists.

Michael Marshall Smith – Everything You Need
A boutique collection of MMS shorts from Earthling Publications – as the first collection since What You Make It, this was a must-buy for me, and a satisfying read. MMS shorts are always dark, sideways glimpses of our world through other eyes; this collections brings together stories from across his career (mostly previously published elsewhere) and a few new additions. MMS describes it as more experimental than the previous collection, which I think is fair – less specific, less plot-driven, more focused on feelings, displacements and devices. Favourites for me include Author of the Death (in which a character goes in search of MMS by stalking him through the sketchily-drawn streets of New York) and Substitutions (on the dangers of finding out who really ordered the things Waitrose accidentally put in your shopping bags). Also, two great zombie apocalypse shorts. Who doesn’t love a good zombie apocalypse short?

Terry Brooks – Elfstones and Wishsong (of Shannara)
I reread these on a nostalgia kick after a passing reference on an LT group thread. Terry Brooks was probably the first major (modern) fantasy author I was introduced to at the impressionable age of about 11, having previously read Tolkien (lots) and an array of children’s fantasy. I recognised immediately that Sword of Shannara was basically a re-write of Lord of the Rings, but I loved Elfstones and its demonic invasion and persevered through the more difficult Wishsong. I reread both many times in my teens, but fast forward 20 years and there’s a very different context that rather changed my enjoyment. Now, I see that Elfstones is fairly poorly written and its womenfolk are horribly served (hello middle-aged white author; I know it was the 80s, but I thought Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley had introduced the notions of feminine empowerment by now); the timeline and levels of detail don’t deliver the emotional punch that I recall the story having back then. Class it as Young Adult, and most of this is forgivable – except for the female characters, who remain sword and sorcery archetypes – but as an adult read, it’s very disappointing. I was expecting to find Wishsong equally horrid, but found myself enjoying it and getting sucked in – it remains problematic racially (the faceless yellow hordes of eastern enemies under the dominating hand of a dark force that wants to take over the world and steal your freedom, anyone?) and on gender lines (female characters, all aged 19 and above, are girls; male characters, including the younger brother, get to be men; also, you shouldn’t trust women with power – although I think I’m being harsh here, and that the true subtext is that you can’t trust magic regardless of the wielder, but it remains that the younger brother and the ancient nature god ultimately rescue the ‘girl’ from her world-destroying powers), but the issues are less in your face and the plot is surprisingly and satisfyingly grimdark in places (although still largely a traditional epic fantasy imaginarium of monsters and magicians).

I’m closing out the year with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Outcast, a novel of ancient Britain and Rome – so far less satisfying than The Eagle of the Ninth trilogy, but an easy coast into the new year.