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The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian (1989) 319 p.

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are very much, at this point, episodic entries in one great long saga, and The Thirteen Gun Salute is perhaps the best demonstration of this so far. The previous entry, The Letter of Marque, ended with Aubrey and Maturin about to be dispatched to Latin America to foment rebellions in the various Spanish colonies; this novel indeed begins on that note, with themselves and their loyal followers (including the beloved Tom Pullings) departing on the Surprise, no longer with her HMS prefix now that she’s a privateer owned by Maturin. Within a hundred pages, however, at their Lisbon rendezvous, O’Brian upends that planned structure and instead has Aubrey and Maturin reassigned to the Diane and tasked with escorting a diplomat to the fictional Malaysian island of Pulo Prabang.

This is all done perfectly well, but serves as an example of the series’ unique structure. There is even a whole short story arc here, in which the Surprise, still on her original mission and only just south of Ireland, closes in on a smuggler, and in one of the nearer moments of the chase Stephen recognises a former comrade from the failed 1798 revolution who has now gone all-in with the French, as opposed to Stephen, who – like Orwell – disapproves of the British Empire while still acknowledging it, and indeed serving it, as the lesser evil compared to the contemporary tyranny emerging from the Continent. A very brilliant chapter revolves around Maturin’s personal torment as he questions what he will do in the event that the Surprise captures the Irish ship – knowing that his former comrade’s arrest would strike a blow to the French, but also despising informers – and even goes so far as to contemplate sabotaging the Surprise so that he won’t have to make such a decision. This sequence easily could have fit at the end of The Letter of Marque, but works just as well at the beginning of The Thirteen Gun Salute. It is an episode within an episode, as so many moments in these book are.

The same can be said of the book’s ending. The central bulk of The Thirteen Gun Salute is devoted to the mission in Malaysia, and it’s as good as always, particularly a peaceful diversion in which Maturin hikes up an extinct volcano to a Buddhist temple in the caldera and spends a week among the monks and the orangutans; there’s also an appropriate (if surprisingly abrupt and typically, O’Brianly, cryptic) conclusion brought upon two long-developed antagonists. But in the final thirty pages O’Brian unexpectedly drops our heroes into a classically unexpected life-or-death at sea scenario: the natural kind, that is, rather than an enemy action, in a scene which reminded me of the brilliant sequence in Desolation Island in which the Leopard strikes an iceberg and begins to sink in sub-Antarctic waters a thousand miles from anywhere. All hands on deck, every member of the crew working away at their emergency tasks, and their captain’s brain ticking away through every hour of a days-long slow-motion catastrophe to make critical evaluations and decisions. Like the opening hundred pages, it could’ve waited until the next book; but it works just as well here, and – unless I’m mistaken – actually serves as the first proper cliffhanger O’Brian has yet written. Considering this is the thirteenth book in a series which plainly became his life’s work some time ago, you have to admire that.

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (1999) 259 p.

This is the first Discworld book I ever read, when I think I was about 12 years old; it came out in 1999, but I wouldn’t have read it straight away, and I turned 12 in late 2000. In fact I have a distinct memory of borrowing it from Karrinyup library, after umming and ahhing over it in the Big W books section (that being the limit of a provincial child’s browsing universe) and deciding I didn’t want to spend any of my limited purchasing power on a series of books which I’d seen all over the place but had always been leery of. I think it was the covers that put me off: Josh Kirby’s ridiculously muscular heroes and outrageously buxom wenches. I was too young to realise that the covers were themselves parodies of the fantasy genre; which is funny because Pratchett’s books had drifted away from generic fantasy parody some ten years and twenty books earlier.

But I was certainly still young enough to assume that a book cover portrays an event in a book, and so I thought The Fifth Elephant would be about some inexplicable cataclysmic impact, particularly since the book begins (as they all do) by explaining how the Disc is carried through space atop four elephants who in turn stand atop a gargantuan turtle. (Possibly at this point the animated series was also playing on the ABC after school, further influencing my idea that this was somehow important). But of course – as any Pratchett reader will tell you – these fundamentals of the Discworld are something Pratchett dreamt up for the first book in the mid-’80s, and they’re utterly irrelevant now, just as the legend of the Fifth Elephant, which supposedly crashed onto the Disc and left behind remnants of fat and bone matter, is utterly irrelevant to the plot of The Fifth Elephant; it’s merely an excuse for Pratchett to make a very silly pun about a contemporaneous film. (A very quirky, unique and excellent film, if you’ve never seen it. SBS Viceland dedicates at least one day a year to showing it all day long, and their program manager explained on Twitter that “I’ll stop doing it when it stops rating so well.”)

So anyway, that was a surprise for young me, reading this laminated hardback library book on holiday, as I recall, in an old caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s acreage down in Capel in what was probably the winter of 2000. (It rained incessantly, which was good for reading.) This book had nothing at all to do with an elephant crashing down from the sky. It was about a copper, a detective, a chief of police in a fantasy city, being sent away from his homeland to a strange and foreign country in which he’s expected to be a diplomat but instead finds himself embroiled in a criminal plot.

I must surely have read The Fifth Elephant again at least once since 2000; I remember it too well. Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and the (recently, unwillingly ennobled) Duke of Ankh, is sent with his wife Lady Sybil to the mysterious country of Uberwald, a sort of wintry wilderness Germany/Russia hybrid, to attend the crowning of the new Low King of the dwarfs. (The High King was a historical office in Ireland, elected by the various smaller kingdoms to rule over them; it makes sense that the subterranean dwarfs would term their own ruler the Low King.) Uberwald has been a lawless place for generations, with the dwarfs and the vampires and the werewolves doing as they please while the human population mostly just tries to get by; but the dwarfs are ascending in power and status and threaten to upset this balanced trifecta. From the very beginning of The Fifth Elephant, the notion of modernisation and cultural change is present:

“I suppose you could say he’s elected,” said Carrot. “But really a lot of senior dwarfs arrange it among themselves. After listening to other dwarfs, of course. Taking soundings, it”s called. Traditionally he’s from one of the big families. But… er…”
“Things are a little different this year. Tempers are a bit… stretched.”
Ah, thought Vimes. “Wrong dwarf won?” he said.
“Some dwarfs would say so. But it”s more that the whole process has been called into question,” said Carrot. “By the dwarfs in the biggest dwarf city outside Uberwald.”
“Don”t tell me, that must be that place Hubwards of…”
“It’s Ankh-Morpork, sir.”
“What? We’re not a dwarf city!”
“Fifty thousand dwarfs now, sir.”

I was reminded of A.A. Gill’s essay about the cornucopia of America, and how Americans naturally celebrate the immigrant story as one of success and optimistic new beginnings; but viewed from the other side, from those left behind in 19th century Europe, it’s one of destitution and loss. The new Low King says this bluntly to Vimes:

“When people say ‘We must move with the times,’ they really mean ‘You must do it my way.’ And there are some who would say that Ankh-Morpork is… a kind of vampire. It bites, and what it bites it turns into copies of itself. It sucks, too. It seems all our best go to Ankh-Morpork, where they live in squalor. You leave us dry.”

Incidentally, this is another point that went over my head when I was a kid – the Low King has been selected as a compromise between more powerful dwarf factions, and comes from a small clan near Llamedos, Pratchett’s stand-in for Wales. His speech is peppered with Welsh phrases like “see” and “look you,” a way of emphasising that king he may be, but he hails from humble origins; at twelve I would have had only a slight notion of what constituted Britain, let alone its vast array of accents and what they signify in a deeply class-based society. Anyway, the Low King isn’t wrong, exactly, in his characterisation of Ankh-Morpork; but from his foreign vantage point, what he fails to understand is that the dwarfs – and the trolls, and the myriad other species that have come to call the big city home – have irrevocably changed Ankh-Morpork as well.

There was also an ache across his back where an axe had been turned aside by his armour. He felt a twitch of national pride at that thought. Ankh-Morpork armour had stood up to the blow! Admittedly it was probably made in Ankh-Morpork by dwarfs from Uberwald, using steel smelted from Uberwald iron, but it damn well was Ankh-Morpork armour, just the same.

It’s an ironic moment, but Vimes (and Pratchett) really means it: it is Ankh-Morpork armour. It’s a physical manifestation of Lord Vetinari’s neat turn of phrase about multiculturalism in Feet of Clay: “Alloys are stronger.”

It was this kind of seriousness, this kind of gravitas, that most impressed me as a kid, a 12-year-old expecting some kind of apocalyptic adventure about a fiery elephant crashing into the earth and instead got something wholly unexpected. A funny book, yes, but funny in ways which speak to a deeper truth, a deeper seriousness; Pratchett being one of those people who uses humour to make a deadly serious observation. What stayed in my mind over the years was the central set-piece, one of the finest Pratchett ever wrote, in which Vimes escapes from a pitch-black subterranean dwarf prison using the last few matches in his pocket….

“Want to see a trick?” said Vimes.
“Watch this,” said Vimes, and brought his hands around and shut his eyes just before the match flared.

…and then has to run through the forest pursued by werewolves in their long-standing, morally revolting “game”:

The werewolves slowed as they reached the building. Their leader glanced at a lieutenant and nodded. It loped off in the direction of the boathouse. The others followed Wolf inside. The last became human for a moment to pull the doors shut and drop the bar across.
Wolf stopped near the centre of the barn. Hay had been scattered over the floor in great fluffy piles.
He scraped gently with a paw, and wisps fell away from a rope that was stretched taut.
Wolf took a deep breath. The other werewolves, sensing what was going to happen, looked away. There was a moment of struggling shapelessness, and then he was rising slowly on two feet, blinking in the dawn of humanity.
That’s interesting, thought Vimes, up on the gallery. For a second or two after changing, they’re not entirely up on current events…
“Oh, your grace,” said Wolf, looking around. “A trap? How very… civilized.”
He caught sight of Vimes, who was standing on the higher floor, by the window
“What was it supposed to do, your grace?
Vimes reached down to the oil lamp. “It was supposed to be a decoy,” he said.

All of which remains coupled with Pratchett’s excellent sense of humour. The Fifth Elephant has one of the series’ very best B-plots, a purely comedic exercise exploring the inevitable consequences of Vimes being sent away and then Carrot also unexpectedly departing, leaving the utterly incapable Sergeant Colon in charge; he soon goes mad with power and ends up barricaded in the Watch House while Nobby’s hastily organised watchmans’ union pickets outside. After observing the City Watch be built up by Vimes and Carrot over the course of five books from a handful of losers into an efficient, modern police force, it’s extremely funny to watch it disintegrate under Colon’s leadership in a mere week. Both Colon and Nobby are well aware of this, and have a repeated refrain of dread running through their heads during this crisis, which runs along the lines of: “Mister Vimes is going to go spare. He’s going to go absolutely mental.”

It’s solid gold stuff, from beginning to end. I’ve greatly enjoyed re-reading the Discworld series even when it doesn’t quite live up to my memories – but sometimes it does. Looking over Goodreads, the last Discworld book I gave five stars to was Men at Arms. Both of them are brilliant books all the way through, enhanced even further by frisson-inducing climaxes in which Vimes faces down a villain, torn between his instinct as a wronged man, a human being thirsty for revenge, for red-blooded justice… and for what he needs and demands and expects of himself to extract as a copper, as an officer of the law. A man who must demand of himself a more robust standard than the general public – of which he is also of course a member. The best of the City Watch books are the best things Pratchett ever wrote, combining all of his thoughtful themes with a truly admirable cast of characters, plot-driven mysteries which culminate in genuinely exciting moments, and never letting up on his trademark sense of humour even in the most desperate moments. I can see why 12-year-old me was so delighted to discover this book, and promptly devoured the rest of Pratchett’s works over the next few years. The Fifth Elephant is an absolute classic.

Rereading Discworld index

I read 66 books this year, second only to 2014’s high water mark of 70, when I was willfully unemployed for the first six months and had a two-hours-per-day London tube commute in the second half. I might have assumed that as a Melburnian undergoing one of the world’s longest lockdowns – personally greatly extended, as I have a vulnerable partner, into a period of self-isolation that lasted from about March to November – to have increased my reading even more than that. But I suppose I don’t actually do a lot of reading at home; I do it on the tram, or on my lunch break out of the office, or on the beach. At home I generally only read before bed, and the unique stresses of 2020 meant I also upped my evening drinking and wasn’t typically in the mood for half an hour of literature before sleep.

So 66 will have to do, and it’s a shame that from that I could only winnow eight books I thought worth writing about. Maybe next year we’ll get back to the magic number of 10. And on a similar note, looking ahead to 2021, even though I don’t much review books anymore I may shift Grub Street to another site – if the formatting of this post looks completely haywire to you it’s because WordPress has become increasingly unusable in recent years, particularly with the forced rollout of its “block” editor, and even though I’ve been blogging here for 13 years I’m ready to walk away from it with the same attitude of somebody leaving a toxic marriage. (Minor insult: I note in the preview window that even though the platform no longer has any way to introduce a simple line break, in either the HTML or visual editor, they will absolutely change “WordPress” with a lower-case P into ~*~WordPress~*~. Get your fucking priorities in order.)

8. Kindred

“I’d rather see the others.”
“What others?”
“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”
“If any do.”
“They do.”
“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”

Suddenly and inexplicably, a successful writer in the 1970s is teleported back in time to an antebellum slave plantation in Virginia. What would be an exciting time travel adventure in the hands of Octavia E. Butler’s contemporaries is transformed by the fact that, like her author, Butler’s protagonist is a black woman. It’s not a particularly radical notion today to re-examine history through the eyes of the oppressed, but I imagine it was fairly fresh ground in the 1970s science fiction scene, and Kindred held a place in the American school curriculum for decades for good reason. It’s a compelling, easily readable novel with a raft of well-sketched characters – particularly Rufus, the plantation’s heir, whose half-hearted gestures of occasional compassion are nowhere near enough to overcome the selfishness bred into him by power and privilege.

7. Blind Lake

Out in the darkness the fire had already been reduced to smouldering embers in the wet snow. A couple of people had died here, and they had died, it seemed to Chris, in order to communicate a message to Blind Lake in the bluntest possible way. You may not pass. Your community has become a cage.

At a federal research facility near Blind Lake, Minnesota, scientists use highly advanced computer technology to study intelligent life on another planet: observing the daily movements of a creature they dub “the Subject,” a chitinous alien who leads a repetitive life in a vast city. On the same day that Blind Lake undergoes a sudden lockdown and quarantine of both people and data, sealing several thousand scientists and their families inside the campus with no explanation forthcoming, the Subject departs his city and ventures into the wilderness. These dual mysteries, and the question of whether they might be related – or the assumption that they must – are the driving heart of a sci-fi mystery thriller that kept me engrossed all the way to the end.

6. The Reverse of the Medal

With one movement hundreds of broad-brimmed tarpaulin-covered hats flew off and the cheering began, the fierce full-throated cheering he had so often heard in battle.

Patrick O’Brian’s phenomenal (and phenomenally long) historical fiction series about Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the physician/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin was already one I’d started to ration. Last year I read only three of them almost back-to-back while travelling in Europe, and this year I read just two. I’ve decided they’re the kinds of books one ideally reads on holiday: not because they’re what you might think of as an easy “beach read,” but because you want to read them near the ocean, feeling the sun and smelling the brine, in a location outside of your ordinary routine, with the thought of what it might be like to experience a new land not as a white-collar drone on a one-week vacation but rather a young midshipman at the beginning of his career on the adventure of a lifetime. And reading them in my one-bedroom apartment through the long, gruelling and mostly wintry Melbourne lockdown just didn’t feel right.

I have little to say about the two that I did read other than that they serve as a continuation of a long story which is one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Neither are among the greatest entries in the series, though The Reverse of the Medal does culminate in what is very possibly the series’ greatest individual scene.

5. The ’40s, The ‘50s, and The ‘60s

When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.

Three books, and this is cheating a little because I finished The ‘40s in 2019, but these three collections from the New Yorker were fantastic slow-consumption reads that I worked my way through over the course of about 12 or 16 months. Selected and edited by the current staff to showcase some of the best writing the magazine produced in the decades each volume represents, they contain pieces as varied as long-form journalism about the D-Day landings or a Southern lynching or the now-quaint youth gangs of 1950s Brooklyn, profiles of figures ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Albert Einstein to Marlon Brando, reviews of contemporary films, books and architecture, short fiction, poetry and more. It was a wonderful way to grasp the feeling of those thirty years (representing a classic age in New York City’s history) as well as seeing how those decades were different from how pop culture has trained us to think of them. An excellent concept executed brilliantly, and it’s a real shame the New Yorker apparently decided to stop with these volumes rather than carry on with the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and – why not? – the ’00s and ’10s. We are, after all, adrift on the currents of history – currents which have become alamringly white and churning – and what’s written right now may very well come to be seen as an artefact of the past before too long.

4. Dark Matter

“Are you happy with your life?”

This is the kind of book you want to go into blind, which makes it virtually impossible to talk about. Suffice to say that on a typical evening in Chicago our humble family man protagonist is abducted off the street by a mysterious masked figure and launched into one of the most page-turning, pot-boiling, compulsively readable sci-fi airport thrillers I’ve ever read. I was enjoying it well enough already when a seeming moment of triumph instead threw the main character into even deeper shit, beginning a very clever third act, as the inevitable consequences of the well-established rules of this world finally, shockingly, manifested themselves. Maybe sharper-minded readers might spot that twist ahead of time, but I didn’t, and found it to be a hugely compelling ending to an already excellent thriller.

3. Crisis Zone

“This is really fucked up and excessively gratuitous. But also weirdly beautiful.”

This is being released in book form in 2021, but I’ve already read it, because almost every day this year – from when the coronavirus exploded in March all the way to the end of December – Simon Hanselmann published about ten panels per day on his Instagram of Crisis Zone, an off-the-cuff Meg, Mogg and Owl serial story in which they cope with the pandemic lockdowns, the BLM protests and Seattle anarchists’ autonomous zone, the West Coast wildfires, unexpected Netflix stardom, their own insanely spiralling hijinks and, ultimately, a family unit which eventually arrives at something like functioning dysfunction. I’ve long been a fan of Hanselmann’s work, with some of his volumes taking out the number one place on this list in years past, but Crisis Zone not only continued to combine Hanselmann’s winning mixture of gross-out comedy with a carefully restrained tendency towards occasional gravitas – Owl gets at least one moment of fist-punching heroism in this – but delivered it in a truly perfect medium for 2020. In a year when so many of us spent countless hours doomscrolling increasingly bleak news on our phones while lying in bed or sitting on the couch, it was always a pleasure to open Instagram and read another entry in an ongoing serial of chaos and catastrophe that seamlessly blended real world events into Hanselmann’s unique universe of quotidian sharehouse squalor (both physical and moral). God bless this house of degenerates as we blast into an uncertain 2021.

2. Piranesi

“You haven’t seen anyone else in the labyrinth, have you?”

Fourteen years after the incomparable Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke gifts us the very different but equally brilliant Piranesi. In a vast and beautiful labyrinth of rooms filled with ornate staircases and marvellous statues, lower floors claimed by the ocean and higher floors lost in the clouds, the titular Piranesi makes a pitiful living eating seaweed and drinking rainwater – yet he is happy, entirely at peace with himself, extolling to the reader the self-evident glories of the House and the World (to him, they are the same). It’s soon apparent to the reader that Piranesi is an amnesiac who does not understand how he came to be in this strange place or the cruelties which were inflicted upon him, and the gradual revelation that comes to him and to us throughout the book is one of the best uses of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. Piranesi is another fantasy masterpiece by Susannah Clarke, and it’s society’s loss that her chronic illness prevents her from being more prolific.

1. The Stand
the stand 2 (3)
By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.

In the year 2020, could it be anything else? I re-read Stephen King’s magnum opus for the first time in years because of the pandemic, of course, but it’s taking out the top place because I was surprised by how genuinely good it still is. The Stand is a gripping odyssey from the very first moment, as a soldier wakes his wife and baby in the middle of the night to flee a top secret base where the US government brews up biological weapons. Neither that soldier nor his family will survive very long, but their actions spread repercussions across the whole world, and The Stand takes us inside the heads of very ordinary people and their ordinary problems right before they all just have one big problem, together.

I ordered a copy of this just as the pandemic became truly global – and, obviously, because of the pandemic – in March, when there was a palpable sensation of the ticking clock, of day-by-day changes, of the sense that every individual human being on the planet was about to be impacted by something in a way that hadn’t happened since World War II, and (in Australia, at any rate) an urgent sense that things had to be done soon to protect us. The Stand’s first act deeply embodies that feeling, with King never losing sight of how bizarre it is that one summer morning you can be leaving a one-night-stand’s apartment in beautiful sunshine in a normal life, and two weeks later you’re in the same city but in a very, very different world; it’s a book which is very fundamentally about how the rock beneath your feet can be suddenly yanked away. Perhaps this is true of all post-apocalyptic novels, but The Stand excels at it. From Frannie burying her father to Nick watching the streetlights go out in a rural town to Larry wandering through a desolate Manhattan, the first act of The Stand is a masterpiece in illustrating the wrenching shock that comes to individuals at the end of the world.

The Stand certainly has its flaws – chief among them a wheel-spinning middle act and the story really being two very different kinds of stories – but it’s still a big, bold, weird, imaginative brick of a novel (1439 pages in the uncut edition) that’s a 10/10 tour de force and indisputably the best book I read all year. It’s the quintessential Stephen King book, a classic of mid-20th century popular fiction, and one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

My full, long review

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January 2021