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I usually do a top ten books list, but you know what? I didn’t read many good books this year, and I’m not going to be goaded into writing stuff about books I’m lukewarm about by my own semi-OCD urge to make things nice and rounded. That’s why I quit reviewing every single book I read in the first place. Nope, five is fine. Here’s the best five books I read in 2017.

5. One More Year
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“I’m having a bad time in here…”

The Meg, Mogg and Owl collections came in at #1 on this list last year, and this volume brings more hilarious antics from a group of revolting, selfish, drug-addicted anthropomorphic animals. What sets it apart from the previous collections is the shocking ending. I won’t spoil it here, but anyone who’s read the other comics will be wondering exactly how much further Hanselmann could push the envelope. So to clarify: it’s not “shocking” in a gruesome or funny way, or even a dramatic non-comedy moment like the end of Megahex, in which Owl moves out of his toxic sharehouse and breathes a sigh of relief as he watches New Year’s fireworks through his taxi window. It’s more of a startlingly unexpected moment which suddenly casts the artist as an unreliable narrator and causes you to question everything you’ve seen of these characters over the previous books. And it’s perfect in its brevity. Hanselmann doesn’t linger, doesn’t make it a big thing. He just gives us a handful of quick panels and then the book is over and we’re left to digest what we just witnessed. Meg, Mogg and Owl is one of the funniest comics of all time, but it’s this sort of stuff which pushes it into being genuinely great art, and something everybody should check out.

4. Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon
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“Fly me to the earth.”

Two books in an as-yet-incomplete trilogy, but I’m rolling them together because I read them almost back to back and they blended together in my mind. Aside from being the best prose stylist writing science fiction today, Ian McDonald is a marvellous sci-fi writer of a futurist bent, who carefully considers all aspects of times to come – the evolution not just of technology but of society, capitalism, geopolitics and human behaviour – and then tosses the reader straight into that world with no spoonfeeding.

This is also one of those books, like Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, in which the author patiently constructs a fictional world and then gleefully rips it apart. The enveloping and confusing catastrophe/coup/war which spreads across the moon in the second half is one of the most exhilarating stretches of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I try to avoid describing fiction as “cinematic,” but I can’t deny these books had some unforgettably visual setpieces and climactic moments that made them an absolute ball to read, and I’m very much looking forward to the final chapter of the trilogy.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son
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“You’re a survivor who has nothing to live for.”

This is a contemporary Pulitzer Prize winning novel about North Korea, so naturally I went into it duly expecting a modern-day rehash of 1984 – which, sure, was an important book, but also a very drab and tedious one. I was pleased to find that The Orphan Master’s Son is nothing like that. Instead it’s a vibrant and exotic novel which almost reads like science fiction or fantasy, as it takes us by the hand and leads us into a wholly alien world. It helps that the protagonist’s life, as a North Korean intelligence agent, is an adventurous one – he travels to Japan, to international waters, to the United States – but Johnson’s skill is such that every moment of this book, even the stint in a concentration camp, feels alive with colour and movement. The beads of moisture on a bottle of Taedonggang beer on a summer day; the glint of moonlight on the black volcanic sands of a disputed island chain; the boat captain’s story about his days on a Soviet cannery ship and the gnashing beak and tentacles of a giant squid that once came down the chute. Every page of this book is a vision into another world. Every sentence is a pleasure to read.

2. Northern Lights
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“But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
“Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.”

I hadn’t read this in fifteen years, but picked it up again because Philip Pullman has finally started publishing the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. There’s a reason I’m listing just Northern Lights and not the original trilogy as a whole: it goes significantly downhill, particularly in the didactic and tedious third volume, The Amber Spyglass.

Northern Lights, though, is deservedly considered one of the best YA books ever written. I can remember exactly where I was when I first started reading it: on a family holiday down to a caravan park down in rainy Albany, on Western Australia’s south coast, when I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. It’s a great book in general, but it particularly succeeds as a YA novel because it checks all those boxes in a young boy or girl’s brain: the daemons, the armoured bears, the alethiometer, the wonderful society of the canal-boat “gyptians,” the witches of the frozen north, the great bridge between worlds, and a hundred other little things. Northern Lights hums along at a terrific pace, each scene feeding perfectly into the next, a fantastic new figment of Pullman’s imagination on every chapter, every single part of it tapping perfectly into the sense of adventure I was craving as a fourteen-year-old on a rainy day. It’s a shame the rest of the trilogy stutters and comes apart, but Northern Lights is a truly wonderful book.

1. Lonesome Dove series
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He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again. That person was back down the weeks, on the other side of the canyon of time. There was no rejoining him, and there never would be.

I first read Lonesome Dove in 2014, when I was riding a motorbike across America, and it ranked #5 in my books of the year. I read Dead Man’s Walk – written later, but chronologically the first in the series – in 2015, and looking back it seems that volume didn’t even rate a mention in my top 10 that year.

Which simply goes to show that some things take a while to digest. Some books you keep thinking about, keep turning over in your head, keep coming back to. And some things work better interlinked, standing in symphony with each other, than they do alone. I’ve read all four books in the series now, and I re-read Lonesome Dove again this year, and I’ll now happily argue that they’re among the greatest American novels of all time.

On the surface, the Lonesome Dove series is a Western saga revolving around the friendship between Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, from their teenage years to their retirement. They’re perfect foils to each other: Call, the gruff stoic, who sees life as something to be endured for the sake of duty, and Gus, the chatterbox epicurean, who sees life as a jug of whiskey to be savoured and enjoyed. Around this axle spins an entire universe of Western characters: cowboys and Indians, priests and whores, governors and millionaires, paupers and peasants, Americans and Mexicans, good people and bad people and every stripe in between. This makes it sound like a popcorn film on paper (in fact it was adapted into a cult TV series, and McMurtry was irritated that so many people embraced it as a “Gone with the Wind of the West”) and it’s true that these books are immensely fun, easily readable, and greatly enjoyable – a point of contention if you’re one of those types who believes proper literature is meant to be difficult and inaccessible.

But the reason they’re great literature is because, before our eyes, hidden behind this airport fiction adventure, McMurtry is dismantling the myth of the West. It was a harsh time and a harsh place, merciless to natives and settlers alike, a godforsaken country where death was a constant possibility and most people were just trying to scrape out a half-decent life. Little did those rough and tumble cow-pokes dragging livestock between Texas and Montana – just another paycheque – realise that one day their own country would comandeer their lives and their legacy, transforming them into a homegrown version of the chivalrous medieval knight of France or Britain, wandering the land, protecting the weak and the innocent. Larry McMurtry wants nothing to do with that; wants nothing to do with almost any narrative convention at all, in fact.

My interpretation of these books is that they’re deeply nihilistic. There’s no getting around that. Everybody is going to die, there is no cosmic justice, and happiness and success are largely a matter of luck. Bad things happen and they cannot be undone. Good people die and bad people live. Time rolls on, life is full of regret, you can’t turn back the clock and you’re still inching closer to your own inevitable death with your dreams unfulfilled and your regrets gnawing at you every day.

Why then do we root for Inish Scull during his terrible torture at the hands of Ahumado? Why do we want Gus to save Lorena from Blue Duck? Why do we think it matters if Call acknowledges Newt as his son? Because nihilism is not the same thing as pessimism. Because there is meaning in life: the meaning that we choose to attribute to it. I suspect most people, McMurtry included, side with Gus more than Call. The meaning of life is simply for it to be enjoyed.

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Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry (1993) 589 p.

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(Critical spoiler warning for Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove)

Most books are about what happens. Larry McMurtry’s books are about what happens next.

Obviously that’s true of all books in a sense: the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. But Larry McMurtry shows us the course of people’s lives, and the consequences of life’s many sorrows, beyond the expected narrative constraint. This is doubly true of Streets of Laredo, the fourth and final installment of the Lonesome Dove series: not just because it’s a low-key sequel to the greatest Western novel of all time – an examination of Woodrow Call’s twilight years after the death of his life partner – but also because of what happens to Call himself at the end of the novel.

After Lonesome Dove I went and read Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, which are chronologically the first two books in the series. They take place when Call and Gus are younger men, when the Texas frontier was truly wild, when Comanche still ruled the western plains. They lead beautifully into Lonesome Dove: a novel which is, at its heart, about memory and old age and the passage of time. The west is still wild, but only just.

Streets of Laredo takes us into the 1890s. The US census has declared the frontier officially gone, steam trains criss-cross Texas, and Captain Call is living out his old age as a bounty hunter. His reputation precedes him, but Call himself knows his glory days are long gone, the frontier tamed, his old companions mostly dead and buried. He is a grumpy old man after a lifetime spent as a grumpy young man.

I remember going into a gift shop in the American West somewhere and finding a whole section of wall plaques emblazoned with quotes from Lonesome Dove – the miniseries is a cult classic, although I’m not sure that’s the right word for something that was broadly popular. Gus is an endlessly quotable rake for all seasons, but Call also has a deep appeal to the masculine spirit of the American West and a common kind of American man. He’s a matter-of-fact stoic, a cowboy who gets things done and has little tolerance for incompetent people. (It occurred to me that incompetence is portrayed as the primary moral failing imaginable in the Western genre, much as it is in that modern TV western, The Walking Dead.) Call is a hard-working John Wayne cowboy in the classic mould. The fact is, of course, Call is also a miserable bastard. He always has been and always will be: a difficult man whom you’d trust with your life but wouldn’t invite to your dinner table. Yet he’s not unsympathetic; he’s a victim of his own nature as much as anybody else is. It’s a mark of McMurtry’s talent as a writer that trying to describe a character like Call can feel like trying to describe a real human. He does run to a groove, but still contains multitudes, still does unexpected things sometimes. There’s a moment at the start of the book where Call’s employer has a panic attack so Call kindly and gently guides him across the street to the hotel – not because kindness and gentleness are his instinctive responses, but simply because he knows they’re the most efficient way to draw someone down from panic, and Call values efficiency and common sense above all else.

I half-expected I might dislike this book because it lacks Gus, the other end of the axle that spins throughout the series, the two characters balancing each other perfectly while a whole Western universe revolves around them. Gus’ absence is certainly felt, but in many ways that only highlights the novel’s greater themes: Call is left to live on, a full fifteen years after the catastrophic Montana expedition, without his partner, often wondering what he might have done or said. That’s life. That’s death.

Streets of Laredo is, judged by itself as a novel – by its ensemble characters, by the shapes and forms of its plot – probably the weakest of the series. But as a conclusion to the Lonesome Dove series, to the saga of Gus and Call’s lives, and those of the people around them, it’s brilliant. The four books together make up one of those rare things: a story which is greater than the sum of its parts. A 3,000+ page Western epic which is, at surface level, about a friendship and partnership between two men, but which touches on a deeper level about so many more things – most notably, and most skillfully, about the nihilistic injustice of the world, about the way life doesn’t always fit to the patterns of the stories we tell ourselves, about how people cope (or don’t cope) when faced with the fact that their own narrative has gone astray. About what happens next.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994) 432 p.
Discworld #16 (Death #2)

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I remembered very little of Soul Music from the first time I read it, and now – about a month after I reread it – I remember very little of it again. It’s not a memorable book. It is, easily, the weakest book in the Discworld’s teen years and probably one of the weakest overall.

Soul Music is a story of two halves, and they’re both variations on themes we’ve seen before. One of them is something from our real world taking spark as a brief fad on the Discworld – we saw this with film in Moving Pictures, and we see it now with rock music in Soul Music. As before, this is mostly an excuse for Pratchett to jam as many jokes and references in about the subject in question as possible. The second plot is the third story in the Death arc, and is about – you guessed it – Death going AWOL and experiencing the real world, resulting in somebody having to step up to take on his duty; in this case his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort.

The gem at the heart of this story is Death’s grief over his adopted daughter’s death, which occurs at the beginning of the novel as she and Mort go over a cliff in a runaway carriage. It’s never outright stated, it’s never even suggested by any of the other characters, but grief is clearly what Death is experiencing – a new and frightening concept for him, and one which jars against his duty to guide souls into the new world. He does this without question, only briefly entertaining the possibility that, yes, he could have done something to stop her death from happening, but Death nonetheless abandons his duty henceforth and spends the rest of the book trying to forget all about his daughter to end the pain of having lost her.

It’s easy to miss that this is his motivation – I don’t think I picked up on it when I read it as a teenager – not just because it’s the third time we’re going through the motions of Death Takes A Holiday, but also because it’s drowned out by what’s going on in the foreground of the novel, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We have a story about a magical pawn shop sidling into Ankh-Morpork from another dimension, an aspiring young musician finding himself in the possession of a magical guitar which begins to possess his soul, and a new kind of music launching itself onto the Discworld. Cue predictable jokes like the avaricious CMOT Dibbler becoming the first rock band’s manager.

All of the interesting stuff in Soul Music – Susan’s repressed childhood memories about visits to Death’s Domain, Albert’s carefully hoarded precious seconds of time in the hourglass hidden beneath his bed, a flashback to the showdown at the finale of Mort – is divorced from the main storyline, much as the touching fairytale at the heart of Reaper Man bears no resemblance to the oddball story about predatory shopping trolleys that felt like it made up more than half the bulk of that book. The dissonance isn’t quite as jarring, but at the same time the Death storyline doesn’t feel quite as good as that in Reaper Man. I’m not surprised I’d forgotten most of Soul Music’s plot – forgettable is the right word for it.

Next up is a return to Rincewind’s story arc in Interesting Times.

Rereading Discworld index

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