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Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry (1997) 752 p.

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Comanche Moon is the final volume McMurtry wrote about Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call, but the second chronologically – it slots in between Dead Man’s Walk, when Gus and Call are freshly minted teenage Texas Rangers, and Lonesome Dove, the original Pulitzer Prize winning doorstopper which sees them retired and herding cattle in their fifties. (There’s a fourth volume, Streets of Laredo, which takes place after Lonesome Dove and which I haven’t read yet.)

Comanche Moon takes place in the 1850s and 1860s, spanning a fair hunk of our heroes’ time at the core of their life as Texas Rangers. Rangers are of course fabled figures in Wild West mythology, but as I’ve come to expect from McMurtry, he doesn’t romanticise them. Despite their nostalgic memories of the good old days in Lonesome Dove, Gus and Call and their comrades are underequipped, undertrained and underpaid, and suffer from a nagging doubt that they really make very little difference in keeping settlers safe from the Comanche. Texas itself, now a state of the Union, is portrayed as a dusty backwater – even its capital is a ramshackle frontier town in which the senators spend their days blind drunk in saloons. Nor does McMurtry shy away from the fact that his ostensible heroes are meant to be “civilising” the frontier and driving away the “savages” – in fact, Comanche Moon spends quite a lot of time inside the heads of various Native American characters. Coming from a white 20th century Texan that would normally be cause for concern, but McMurtry’s skill with character is such that the “Indians” are as well-rounded, complex and diverse as the Americans. They’re very different, of course, since they believe they live in a world of spirits and witches and gods and portents, but at the same time some are more dubious about that than others – much like some Texans roll their eyes at the Bible-bashers amongst their number. McMurtry also manages to make the Indians sympathetic despite often being violent nightmares in human flesh. Buffalo Hump, for instance – apparently a real historical figure – is a chieftan who halfway through the book brutally murders the unarmed parents of one of the main characters during a horrific raid of rape and plunder. Yet because we see him as part of his time and place – and because we see so much of the novel through his eyes, and feel his gnawing anxiety about the end of his people and the end of his era – he’s a character you respect, even if you don’t necessarily like him. (This reminds me of quite a few characters in Game of Thrones.) Part of this is skilful character writing; another part of it is McMurtry’s dispassionate style, in which he relays the horrible facts of the frontier in unsentimental prose which can make the actions and choices of characters feel as immutable – and as incapable of guilt or responsibility – as a landslide or a flash flood. McMurtry writes about a world of implacable injustice.

And as always, he’s also very gripping. One of the driving narratives in Comanche Moon is the story of Inish Scull, a larger-than-life Harvard history professor with a penchant for combat who seeks his fortune with the Texas Rangers, and by the campfire at night reads out stories of Napoleon or the Ancient Greeks to the uneducated hicks that make up his lacklustre squad. The novel kicks off when Scull’s gigantic warhorse is stolen by the Comanche thief Kicking Wolf, who takes it to Mexico as a gift for the feared bandit warlord Ahumado. Promoting the bemused Gus and Call to captains and entrusting them with taking the Rangers back to Austin, Scull bravely but unwisely pursues Kicking Wolf alone into Ahumado’s territory, and what subsequently happens to him stretches out over a good course of the novel. From any reasonable point of view Scull’s actions are foolishly reckless, but McMurtry shows his motivations so well – his ennui, his thirst for adventure, his rollicking battle spirit which sits just this side of sanity – that when Scull ended up in an agonisingly brutal battle of wits with Ahumado, including a particularly horrific form of torture, I found myself rooting for him harder than any other character I can remember in quite a while. (It’s all the more gripping since, after the previous two books I’ve read, I know that McMurtry is up there with George R.R. Martin when it comes to killing off characters who seem untouchable).

This series – especially the first two books – often reminds me of the fantasy genre, telling of wild adventures and unknown foreign lands and death-defying exploits. (In that sense McMurtry also reminds me of Patrick O’Brien, and in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to call Gus and Call, with their odd couple relationship, the Aubrey and Maturin of the American West.) There’s one particular scene: Scull arrives in Ahumado’s territory, is led down into a meteor crater amid a horde of hundreds of starving peasant slaves, and is forced to eat the cooked brains of his beloved horse. (“So it must have been when the cavemen ate the mastodons, Scull thought.”) The way McMurtry paints this scene – the slow build-up of ominous dread, the primitive barbarism of it all – makes it feel like something out of a Norse saga. And what is the Wild West if not the great fantasy of America?

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I’ve decided to stop reviewing books in 2017. I don’t mean entirely; I’ll still write a review if I feel I have something relevant to say, if a book is really wonderful or really awful or if I think it does something particularly unique. But I’ve wasted too much time over the past few years on my own obsession with box-ticking, with reviewing every book I read even if I don’t have any insights worth sharing. I’ll probably still scribble a few thoughts in shortform on my Goodreads account, if you don’t already follow me there.

Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2016 – not counting re-reads, specifically my Re-reading Discworld series, which would have filled up quite a bit of it.

10. The Possessors
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“Come out, Mandy. You think it’s cold out here, but it isn’t.”

Sometimes you don’t want a Booker Prize winner with fifteen pages of broadsheet accolades on the inside cover. Sometimes you don’t want gorgeous prose and beautiful metaphors and intricately structured symbolism. Sometimes you just want a classic sci-fi monster story to read late at night with a storm howling at the window. The Possessors is vintage John Christopher, a group of stuffy middle class English tourists trapped after a snowstorm in a remote Swiss chalet who have the singular misfortune of stumbling across a body-possessing alien intelligence, and find themselves falling to it one by one. Sure, we’ve seen this before in The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but what’s not to love? Books like these are the equivalent of a halal snack pack: you shouldn’t have one for dinner every night, but when it’s what you’re craving it can be pretty damn good.

Further reading: RIP John Christopher, Unsung Young Adult Sci-Fi Writer

9. Black Light Express
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Far off, where the sea met the sky, a light the colour of nothing at all reflected very faintly off the clouds.

The sequel to Philip Reeve’s enormously enjoyable futuristic space opera Railhead, Black Light Express sees him in Star Trek mode as Zen and Nova explore an entirely different galaxy full of bizarre aliens and beautiful new planets. Back home in the Network Empire, trouble is brewing, and before long Zen and Nova aren’t the only humans forced to flee into uncharted space. Reeve paints his galactic canvas with gay abandon, and it’s all the little things that add up to make him a great writer: the cinematic setpieces, the concise and subtle descriptions of characters’ feelings, and his uncanny skill of ending chapters with just the right turn of phrase to generate narrative frisson. It continues to bemuse me that he’s not more well-known; he’s certainly one of Britain’s finest YA novelists.

Further reading: Philip Reeve on the genesis of his concept for an interstellar railway

8. Here
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“We have reason to believe that your property may potentially be an important site.”

Not really a comic or a graphic novel so much as an intriguing thought experiment that plays out across a book-length work. There is no story, there are no characters; there is simply a room. There is simply here. The place never changes, but we see the room of an ordinary house over millions of years of existence – including long before it is built and long after it is destroyed – jumbled, out-of-order glimpses of the thousands of minor and major interactions, both human and animal, playing out across thousands of years. It makes you reassess the idea of your own living room as a humdrum, ordinary space. Here is a unique and fascinating work of art.

Further reading: McGuire’s early 6-page comic with the same concept, published in 1989

7. House of Suns
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“You are a bookworm, tunnelling through the pages of history.”

Humans can’t really grasp the immensity of space and time, but Alastair Reynolds does a very good job of trying. House of Suns puts us in the minds of near-immortals travelling around a human colonised galaxy, watching empires rise and fall like lilypads blooming on a pond. This is a space opera on relativistic time: where lifetimes can pass in a single paragraph, where a spaceship chase near the climax takes three thousand years, where a character can refer to an empire that controlled thousands of star systems and lasted millions of years as “fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s a testament to his skill how rapidly the reader adjusts to this new world. Beyond that, House of Suns is a great book because it’s just deeply, deeply engrossing – the kind of book that makes you miss your stop on the train.

Further reading: An interview with Alastair Reynolds about House of Suns

6. The Peripheral
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So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.

The Peripheral, like many of Gibson’s works, is a familiar plot-driven genre vehicle with predictable strokes and a deus ex machina ending. He can be forgiven all that because it’s such a richly detailed world – or two worlds, rather, one in rural America in the near future and one in London in the far future, hinging on the time travel connection and transfer of data between the two. Both of these worlds are equally engaging: a run-down, decrepit, barely-getting-by America that’s seen better days, and a glitzy high-tech London built on the ruinous foundations and catastrophes of the 21st century, a world where the haves are doing great and the have-nots have pretty much died out. Gibson once again weaves his magic with the subtle inclusion of small details and an unforgiving determination to rarely hold the reader’s hand.

Further reading: Ned Beauman interviews William Gibson about The Peripheral

5. Warday
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At 1654 we heard a long, crackling rumble from the north. I knew that this was the sound of the Soviet weapons detonating over Washington, two hundred miles away.
I remember that a big crowd had gathered, and the local volunteer fire department soon arrived.

We haven’t thought about them much over the past twenty-five years, but all those thousands of nuclear warheads are still there, still patiently waiting to go off. Warday explores not a full-blown nuclear war, but rather a limited strike of only a handful of warheads on US cities… which nonetheless triggers total economic collapse, a balkanisation of the United States, terrible famine and a new world order. This is what a single submarine-load of nuclear weapons could wreak, Streiber says, so now imagine what a full-scale exchange would look like. Warday is very much a product of the Cold War and in some ways it can feel quite dated; but given that a man with the ego and emotional capacity of a toddler is about to take control of America’s nuclear codes, Warday is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Further reading: What Exactly Would It Mean To Have Trump’s Finger On The Nuclear Button?

4. Replay
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The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.

It’s a thought I’ve had often enough: what if I suddenly woke up in my own body ten or twenty years ago, with all my memories intact? How much would I remember about sporting events for gambling purposes? Do I try to stop 9/11? How would I cope with missing the people in my life that I wouldn’t meet for another ten years? Replay lives that fantasy (or nightmare) out as Jeff Winston finds himself, over and over again, dying of a heart attack at the age of 42 and waking up as an 18-year-old in his college dorm. It’s a hugely compelling and enjoyable paperback potboiler that feels like a lost entry from Stephen King’s early writing career.

Further reading: Jo Walton revisits Replay

3. Truth
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“Didn’t do a bad job with the boys either,” he said. “Seeing to them. I should’ve said that before.”

There are awkward beats in Truth, to be sure; places where Peter Temple’s primary calling as a crime writer shines through a bit too strong, places where he feels compelled to insert a gunfight or some other cliche. But none of that is what comes to mind when I remember this book. What I remember is a novel that hangs on a genre framework, but also powerfully rises above it. Truth is an atmospheric police procedural set during a sweltering summer week in Melbourne, as the smoke of hellish bushfires hangs over the city, as Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani tries to cling to the last few shreds of his personal life. It’s an examination of Australian masculinity, a masterclass in laconic Australian vernacular, and a very deserving winner of the Miles Franklin Award.

Further reading: An interview with Peter Temple

2. HMS Surprise
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On and on she sailed, in warmer seas but void, as though they alone had survived Deucalion’s flood; as though all land had vanished from the earth; and once again the ship’s routine dislocated time and temporal reality so that this progress was an endless dream, even a circular dream, contained within an unbroken horizon and punctuated only by the sound of guns thundering daily in preparation for an enemy whose real existence it was impossible to conceive.

The third novel in the immense Aubrey-Maturin series, and the one for me where Patrick O’Brien really hits his stride. It’s an epic in miniature, a voyage across the world to Brazil, India and Malaya, the characters we’ve come to know taking their first steps beyond the familiar world of Europe. O’Brien’s prose is so complex, so 19th century in its mannerisms and stylings, that I have to admit it sometimes goes over my head; I would not actually be able to offer you a proper plot synopsis of HMS Surprise, a book which I have decided is the second-best one I read all year, which frankly seems odd. Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to matter with Patrick O’Brien. What I remember is his deeply vivid imagery, and the dozens of scenes that still stick in my head from this book: the loss of the poor, lovesick crewman on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic; the funeral pyre at the edge of the water in India; Stephen’s duel, and the surgery he performs on himself to extract a bullet from the edge of his beating heart; the sad, lonely death of the reverend on a nameless tropical island somewhere in Malaya; Stephen’s heartbroken trek up the side of a volcano in the Canaries to lie in a shadow gutter of snow. This whole series is really one enormous meta-novel, but HMS Surprise is the most strikingly beautiful part of it so far.

Further reading: Philip Reeve on why he loves the Aubrey-Maturin series

1. Megahex & Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam
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“That’s not funny. That’s just depressing.”

This is two books, but along with their outrigger zines, online home at Vice, and various scribblings floating around on Tumblr,these comics by Australian artist Simon Hanselmann are the best thing I’ve read in years. A witch, her cat, a man-sized owl and a werewolf: some of the most disgusting, depraved and depressing characters you will see put to print, floating through a pointless life of ennui in a suburban wasteland that’s not quite America and not quite Australia, setting constant new lows in their inhuman treatment of each other. With its slow, agonising build-ups, pitch perfect timing and characters’ ridiculous facial expressions, Megg, Mogg & Owl is probably the funniest comic I’ve ever read.

And that would be enough: a really hilarious and creative stoner comedy that made me literally laugh out loud multiple times would be great, and it would certainly be on this list. The reason it’s #1 is because Hanselmann consistently, subtly pushes the narrative beyond its expected template, creating moments which are unexpectedly moving. The ending of Megahex in particular, as Owl closes his eyes and imagines himself flying free amongst the fireworks, escaping his terrible life, was surprisingly cathartic. Using the words “tackling” or “addressing”makes it sound like an after-school PSA, as though things like drug use abuse and depression and loneliness are solvable hurdles on the road to a happy existence, rather than, for some people, indelible elements of their lives. Maybe the best word is “illustrates;” Hanselmann draws on his own life experience to illustrate depressing, drug-addled, abusive relationships, using anthropomorphic fantasy characters in an endlessly hilarious way.

Further reading: “Boston Clanger” (the NSFW litmus test for whether this humour is to your taste), plus Sean T. Collins interviews Simon Hanselmann

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