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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
“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
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.
“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.
7. House of Suns
“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
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
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.
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
“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
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
“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.
The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber (2001) 66 p.
This is quite a short book, somewhere between a novella and a long short story. My library ebook edition turned out to have a preview of The Book of Strange New Things taking up the final third, so I was a bit surprised when The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps ended quite abruptly on page 66.
Under the Skin was a brilliant debut novel and a hard act to follow, and The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps does unfortunately have a touch of sophomore syndrome to it. Haunted by repetitive nightmares, archaeology student Sian joins a dig at the old abbey in Whitby, Yorkshire. Here she meets an arrogant medical student from London named Mack, who shares with her an old parchment in a bottle his late father found in the foundations of a local building. Their relationship grows as they try to safely extract and decipher the message within, which turns out to be a confession about a centuries-old murder. So The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is part romance, part historical mystery. It reminded me, on reflection, of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. (Which, funnily enough, I reviewed exactly a year ago to the day.) Both are short books are about a memorable time in a person’s life, in a place they don’t normally live, visiting for a very specific task; the time and place unusual only in that it’s unusual for them, breaking them out of their normal routines and leaving them aware even as they live that time that it’s quite ephemeral. That was long-winded; I’m sure the Germans have a word for it.
Anyway, I found The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps engaging enough while I was reading it but not particularly memorable. It felt very much to me like an uncertain second novel after the huge success of Faber’s debut.
This time last year I was sitting in my room in Whitechapel, knowing it doesn’t snow in London very often but still stubbornly expecting it to. Now I’m back in Melbourne again, and it feels as though I’ve never left. I associate books with certain times and feelings and places in my life, whether the book itself left any lasting impression on me or not. It feels like just yesterday I was reading Asimov’s Foundation (a terrible book) in Kings Domain across from my office during the blisteringly hot Christmas season four years ago; on the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I was sheltering from the rain and reading Susannah Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu (not bad at all) in the warmth of the Draper’s Arms in Ealing, but it was really just 365 days ago. Funny old world.
Anyway, these are the ten best books I read in 2015.
10. Goodbye To All That
England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language, and it was newspaper language.
World War I was the epitome of pointless wars. It was a snowballing squabble over alliances and military power which, before anybody could stop it, turned into a brutal industrialised killing machine which robbed the world of half a generation of young men. (That is always worth repeating, because it has become a cliche: World War I, for no gain whatsoever, literally exterminated millions of would-be leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists.) Neither side was in the right or the wrong. It is absolutely incredible how many people, even today, refuse to acknowledge this; how many people still demand to shove this war alongside its younger brother into the box marked “fighting for freedom.”
Few of those people, I suspect, have actually read much about it. As far as WWI memoirs go it’s hard to top that of Robert Graves, who later became a renowned poet and historical novelist. The curious thing is how dispassionately he relates most of it; as though he knows all too well that the war is far bigger than any of them, that nothing he or his fellow officers ever did or said could affect things one speck. All he could do was observe and report. The result, despite its detached tone, is one of the most detailed and grisly war memoirs of all time.
9. Slade House
Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.
Time was David Mitchell could publish a book and it would inevitably be my number one for the year, but I’m sure one of the world’s most feted contemporary writers won’t be losing sleep at his gradual slide down my annual list at a blog where I’m still too cheap to shell out for a dedicated domain name. Slade House is probably his worst book, but that’s a bit like saying the Wire’s fifth season was its worst: even when Mitchell’s not on form, he’s still great. Slade House is a B-side to last year’s The Bone Clocks: a short and creepy haunted house mystery, with an eerie mansion appearing in the trackless suburban wasteland of Greater London every nine years to claim an unsuspecting victim. Whatever its flaws, Mitchell retains his ability to make you care about characters – even unsavoury ones – within a few dozen pages. In the case of Slade House, that generally has heartbreaking results.
8. Mother of Eden
Men still fear women’s power. No-one ever forgets their mother’s power to give them nourishment or withhold it. And men specially don’t forget it, because they never grow into women themselves, and never lose a child’s craving for the comfort of women’s bodies.
I thought Dark Eden was an excellent sci-fi novel, the really creative kind that we tend not to see a lot of these days; yet I had no interest in reading the sequel, because I thought Chris Beckett had already said everything that needed to be said about an inbred tribe of humans descended from a pair of astronauts stranded on a distant planet of eternal night. I was wrong. Mother of Eden jumps many generations into the future of this strange world, when the descendants of the schism between David and John have spread far across the surface of the planet, creating new societies locked in a sort of extraterrestrial religious Cold War against each other. With a larger and more complex world to juggle, Mother of Eden doesn’t quite hit the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s still fascinating to see Beckett expand one of the most unique and imaginative worlds in contemporary science fiction. I’m disappointed that according to what I’ve read, the third novel in the series won’t take a similar leap into Eden’s future, but I look forward to it nonetheless. (I’m still holding out for a Lord of the Flies or Apocalypto style ending.)
7. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.
Harry August is born, he lives, he dies – and he is born again, back where he started in 1919 in the women’s bathroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed train station, with all his memories and experience but with the slate of history wiped clean. His life is an Escher staircase, an ouroboros; and so, armed with a foreknowledge of what the 20th century will hold, he sets out to discover his purpose in this world.
It’s always refreshing to find a sci-fi or fantasy author who can write – not Pulitzer-level stuff, but somebody who can actually craft their sentences well and make a plot work properly, people like George R.R. Martin or Glen Duncan or (see above) Chris Beckett. Claire North is one of these authors, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an absolute corker of a novel: fun, fast, and the perfect kind of engaging sci-fi mystery to read on a long flight, which I was lucky enough to do so. It engages in the obligatory questions about the meaning of life which one would expect from a story about immortals, but, more importantly, gives us plenty of fun with the mechanics and possibilities of ever-lasting life, knowledge of the future and a permanent reset button.
6. Under The Skin
She and they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?
On the face of it – if I were to describe it to you right now, assuming you know nothing about it – Michel Faber’s Under the Skin is a completely batshit novel with a crazy premise and a moralistic purpose. And yet somehow it manages to become so much more than that. It begins with the weirdly attractive yet oddly creepy woman named Isserley driving around Scotland picking up hitchhikers for what we soon gather are nefarious purposes. Is she a sex addict? A serial killer? The truth, as we discover, is far more horrifying than that.
Under The Skin is fundamentally an allegorical work, for an aspect of our society which makes me uncomfortable even if I enjoy it too much to actually give it up. But it’s the mark of great science fiction that it makes you consider and re-evaluate something you take for granted as part of everyday life. It’s also a compelling, readable story – and a fantastic accomplishment for a first novel.
Just before a train went through a K-gate there was a moment of quiet, so short that only railheads caught it, as the wheels moved from the normal K-bahn track to the strange, ancient, frictionless rails which ran through the gate itself. That was what it felt like to Zen when he recognized the girl: a heartbeat’s silence, and then he was in a new world.
Philip Reeve returns explosively to form with Railhead, his first novel for teenage readers in some time – and the first, in my opinion, that comes close to matching the Mortal Engines series for that trifecta of story, spectacle and emotional heft. A richly-layered, deeply imagined sci-fi universe in which travel between planets takes place on sentient teleporting trains, a pantheon of inhuman AIs dwelling in the “data sea,” a rag-tag street thief recruited for a daring heist – what’s not to like?
I can stack the compliments up all day. But most importantly, Reeve still manages an ineffable sense of epic adventure; cliffhanger moments; turns of phrase and character decisions and powerful climaxes. All the reasons we read this kind of fiction, all the reasons we go to the movies, all the reasons we tell stories around campfires. I can’t quite articulate it, but whatever it is, Reeve has it in his bones.
4. Death Comes for the Archbishop
In New Mexico he always awoke a young man. Not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “Today, today”’ like a child’s.
This is one of the TIME 100, and in that article Richard Lacayo compares the book to a tapestry. I keep coming back to that description because it’s so perfectly apt. Father Latour’s life is nothing more than a series of scenes, encounters and experiences, none of them any more important than the others; nor can his own life be viewed in isolation, because it’s inextricably part of a richer and broader web, comprising all the people who have been part of his lived experience, and he a part of theirs. Willa Cather’s prose is unsympathetic, unempathic; in that sense she reminded me of a more serious and poetic Larry McMurtry. There are certainly beautiful turns of phrase here, marvellous descriptions and passages, and yet I found that a few weeks after reading this book, most of them had filtered out of my head. What remained was what felt like the solid reality of this man’s rich and beautiful life.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Science fiction, in its purest form, has the purpose of making us think about what’s possible. Science fiction is about the exploration of concepts and ideas. Science fiction is about challenging orthodoxies and upending conventional viewpoints.
Yet science fiction itself, with its associate fandoms, geekery and nerdhood, has developed orthodoxies of its own. One of these is the near-universal opinion that it is humanity’s manifest destiny to colonise the galaxy. It’s an opinion I share, and I have to say that it’s an extremely powerful book which makes you legitimately and respectfully question your own beliefs – or at least question the reasons you hold them, and the outrigger opinions you’ve come to associate with them. Kim Stanley Robinson has always been a deeply moral, political and environmental writer, and in Aurora – although I might dispute some of his facts and conclusions – he makes every sci-fi nerd take a good, long look at why they believe what they believe. This isn’t just a cause-du-jour 2015 novel about climate change and Malthusian catastrophes and environmental stewardship; it’s a novel about what we’re trying to run from, why we’re so keen to leave, and what we think we’re going to find.
That alone would have been enough to give it a spot high on this list. But it’s also a novel with one of the best narrator characters I’ve read in a very long time, and a near-conclusion passage which is one of the most affecting pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I hesitate to say this after the sheer amount of time and paper that went into Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, but I think Aurora might be his best novel. It’s certainly one of the best science fiction novels of the past 30 years.
2. The Remains of the Day
“Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”
Stevens must have a first name, but we don’t know what it is, and perhaps even he has forgotten it. He lives a life of pure dedication to his position as butler of Darlington Hall: a man living his life not only in servitude to others, but in servitude to the very idea of servitude; to his own obsession with the profession of butlering. He lets other pleasures and opportunities slide on past because of his single-minded dedication to what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing.
Kazuo Ishiguro lays metaphor upon metaphor in a deceptively simple book which has an iceberg of deeper meaning beneath it, and an emotional sucker punch to match that of his more recent (and perhaps more famous) Never Let Me Go. In theme, those two novels reflect each other perfectly. Never Let Me Go is about the cages society builds for us; The Remains of the Day is about the cages we build for ourselves. It’s a sad and beautiful novel which everybody should read.
He is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.
From a book which I think everybody should read to a book which is, to put it lightly, not everybody’s cup of tea. How to explain Gormenghast to the uninitiated? How to describe its pleasures, its tedium, its weight, its importance?
I can’t. It simply has to be read. It’s not even one book at all, although I’m counting it as one – it’s two excellent novels, one semi-finished third novel written by an author who was losing his mind, and then a collection of scribbled notes, extrapolated intentions and inevitable musings on the reader’s part about where Mervyn Peake intended to take his epic saga. This all combines to create a single work of art, a single place, a single experience with a single title: GORMENGHAST.
This is a collection of writing so vivid and intense that it almost feels real. It’s a Gothic labyrinth as complex and fascinating as the huge, rambling, decaying castle of Gormenghast itself. The main character is not the lordling Titus Groan who flinches from his hereditary responsibilities, nor the cunning and ruthless Steerpike who plots to climb the ladder and rule the castle; it’s not even the setting of Gormenghast itself, that legendary semi-derelict universe of stone and masonry, in the sense that so many great works have settings indispensable to the tone of the story. No, the main character is Peake’s prose: Gothic in tone, baroque in style, florid and detailed and endlessly compelling. Writing the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Writing like a man composing a symphony; or painting a canvas – one of those great, detailed, fifteen-foot high paintings that hang in the National Gallery. Writing so bizarre and yet so accomplished that it makes the castle city of Gormenghast feel like a real place full of real people, and yet at the same time like an impossible daydream; a memory of a place we once were, which we can no longer reach.
People who’ve read Gormenghast are nodding their heads and agreeing; people who haven’t read Gormenghast have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. All I can say is that you really must read these books. They’re like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.
Six months of blissful unemployment in the first half of the year and a one-hour train commute in the second half of the year means that 2014 was my best year yet for reading, as I just scraped across the line to make it a solid 70 books – a record I doubt I’ll break for some time. Here’s a rundown of the ten best books I read this year.
Beszel and Ul Qoma are twin cities with completely different languages, ethnicities, societies and architecture. They sit not side by side, but in the same physical space as each other, with residents of either city trained from birth to “unsee” their opposite numbers. China Mieville’s fascination with cities reaches its zenith in The City and The City, a hugely original creation which touches upon so many aspects of real life cities which seem bizarre when looked at afresh – wealth disparities, people not looking at each other on the tube, the homeless, and far more – yet it does so without forcing these implications upon the reader, leaving the novel, at its heart, a simple crime procedural that just happens to take place in a crazy fantasy city.
Selecting books for this list is often difficult – what exactly does “best” mean? Most enjoyable? Most memorable? Objectively greatest? Most thought-provoking?
T.H. White’s enormous novel The Once and Future King, comprised of five smaller books, is not a piece of fiction I can say I loved, or maybe even liked. Indeed, for most of the middle stretch (i.e. three books worth) I was bored by it. Its tone never sat well with me: deliberately whimsical and satirical, yet also dark and philosophising. But by the time I finished the final volume, The Book of Merlyn (the best in the series), I was ready to stand back and appreciate this enormous work on its own terms: as a long and fascinating attempt by a troubled writer to leave his own mark upon the legends which had long fascinated him. I may not have always enjoyed it, and I still believe it’s a strange and flawed book, but it was also deeply memorable and unique – the sort of book that you’re glad exists simply for its own sake. It wouldn’t have felt right to leave it off this list.
8. The Last Werewolf
There’s a reason humans peg-out around eighty: prose fatigue. It looks like organ failure or cancer or stroke but it’s really just the inability to carry on clambering through the assault course of mundane cause and effect. If we ask Sheila then we can’t ask Ron. If I have the kippers now then it’s quiche for tea. Four score years is about all the ifs and thens you can take. Dementia’s the sane realisation you just can’t be doing with all that anymore.
It’s appropriately ironic that this is a hybrid tale: part monster story, part espionage thriller, richly comic and with one of the best narrators I’ve read in a long time. 200-year-old Jake Marlowe may be a monster and a murderer, but we can forgive him that, because he’s such good company. The Last Werewolf would have reached a higher spot on this list if it didn’t stumble badly towards the end, but it’s still a cracking good novel.
“And there was another one, too, about ‘where is Earth?’ Now, I ask you – where is Earth? – in relation to what? Oh, yes, he knows it goes round the sun, but where, please, is the sun? And, there were some others – simply not his kind of questions.”
This is an overlooked classic from John Wyndham, one of Britain’s greatest science fiction writers, in which a humble father is distressed to find that his eleven-year-old son appears to have developed an imaginary friend – a voice in his head with all kinds of scientific questions and strange notions about the human race. All of Wyndham’s hallmarks are here: a curiously dated vision of society (even for his time), a stuffy yet enjoyable writing style, a collision between human and alien intelligences. Yet Chocky, his final published work before death, is surprisingly more hopeful about mankind’s future than his previous novels. And compared with his most famous four (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos), most of which have rather abrupt endings, Chocky has perhaps the most satisfying conclusion since The Midwich Cuckoos – and one a great deal more touching and affecting. It’s nice to think that perhaps Wyndham became more optimistic before his death.
A unique novel set in eleventh century England after the Norman invasion, Paul Kingsnorth has created a phonetic “shadow tongue” comprised entirely of derivatives from Old English words (rather than introduced Romance words which comprise much of the modern language) to better reflect the words and thoughts of the people who lived at the time. In this superstitious world where villagers fear the devils and spirits of the forest in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire, it’s easy to feel unsettled in the opening chapter, as a series of omens and warnings foretell something terrible coming for England. The French invasion may not have been supernatural, but for all the blood and misery it brought, it may as well have been an army of demons. The aftermath of the invasion unfolds through the eyes of Kingsnorth’s marvellously written narrator, Buccmaster of Holland, an arrogant and violent man with a dark history. The Wake is a wonderful case of concept and execution coming together perfectly.
Those ten words perfectly sum up the ethos of Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western masterpiece is in many ways a book of two halves. On one hand it’s a plain and easy read which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to somebody who isn’t much of a reader; on the other hand, it’s a thousand pages of deep and affecting literature that very much deserved its Pulitzer win. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted and often funny book; on the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from the realities of the American West, and contains scenes of utter brutality. On the one hand, it’s a nihilistic and realistic novel in which death comes to good people for no good reason; on the other hand, it exhorts us to take joy in the world and find meaning in simple things. As one reviewer put it: “If you only read one Western in your life, make it Lonesome Dove.”
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died earlier this year, Peter Carey wrote in the Guardian about how valuable the Latin American writer had been to him as he struggled with his own cultural cringe. Nobody can read Carey’s early stories, or his first novel Bliss, without noticing they take place in locations which are clearly Australian but nonetheless go unnamed. “The absence of placenames in the stories is a good indication of what I was avoiding,” Carey said, “a sign that I was still too young (and damaged) to see that Myrniong was a beautiful strange name and that Wonthaggi was a poem unto itself.”
In Illywhacker, his second novel, this reluctance has been well and truly vanquished. Illywhacker zigzags its way up and down Australia as it follows the life of vagabond, thief, pilot, casanova, snake-catcher and general illywhacker Herbert Badgery, and its paragraphs are dotted with Australian town names that begin to take on a lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Terang, Balliang, Jindabyne, and hundreds of others. The novel sprawls across hundreds of pages and three generations of Herbert’s extended family: a huge, messy, heartfelt picaresque epic. Objectively speaking, Oscar & Lucinda is probably Carey’s better book, but Illywhacker is by far my favourite, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.
Lev Grossman’s brilliant Magicians trilogy is often incorrectly described as Harry Potter for adults, which is a pathetically shallow analysis. For all its flippant humour and millenial meta-commentary, this trilogy is a surprisingly thoughtful work about unrealised dreams and the bleakness of adulthood. Young people finding that life isn’t what they thought it would be is hardly uncovered ground in literature, but Grossman marries this to the very concept of young adult fiction, and the momentousness, heroism and epic nature that makes up so much of it – setting up an entire generation of kids for dashed hopes and dreams.
It’s a mark of Grossman’s success that he builds this concept into a genuinely successful fantasy: a story that you love reading and a world you enjoy being in. It’s a further mark of his success that The Magician’s Land manages to answer all of those hard questions the earlier books raised, squarely acknowledging that our hopes and dreams probably won’t come true, but still ends on a positive and uplifting note. The Magician’s Land is an excellent conclusion to one of the finest works of fantasy in the last twenty years.
2. The Bone Clocks
The brigadier I knew has left his bombed-out face, leaving me alone with the clock, shelves of handsome books nobody ever reads, and one certainty: that whatever I do with my life, however much power, wealth, experience, knowledge or beauty I’ll accrue, I, too, will end up like this vulnerable old man. When I look at Brigadier Reginald Philby, I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.
David Mitchell has always been known for having a pastiche writing style, switching easily from the viewpoint of a 19th century diarist to a Worcestershire schoolboy to a Korean clone-slave in a dystopian future, all while maintaining his own magical authorial voice, replete with wit and dazzling wordplay. The Bone Clocks returns to the patchwork style we saw in earlier novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, skipping across the threads in the life of Holly Sykes, from 1980s England to the coast of Ireland in a future ravaged by climate change, by way of Cambridge, Switzerland, Iraq, Australia, Iceland and plenty more besides. In the background of Holly’s life, the conclusion to a centuries-long battle between different factions of immortals is being played out.
The Bone Clocks is not David Mitchell’s finest novel; I felt that the framework meant we never truly got to know Holly as a character, and the tone stumbles badly in the penultimate chapter as the immortals come out of the shadows and onto the stage. But it is, nonetheless, a David Mitchell novel, and every sentence is a feast.
1. The War of the Worlds
Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede – a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.
No matter that I’ve read and watched and experienced so many adaptations of this story that I already could have written a plot synopsis: the original is the best. I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I finally got around to reading this 116-year-old novel, that it was the most captivating piece of fiction I’d read in a very long time. Wells’ timeless tale of imperial destruction and genocide is a classic for a reason: from the sultry, eerie heat of the summer evening in Woking, to the panicked flight at the Leatherhead ferry, to the horrible stillness of a deserted London, he takes the reader through a series of unforgettable set-pieces as he wreaks apocalyptic devastation on the suburbs of London – which, even though set in the 19th century, still seem the very definition of humdrum normalcy. The War of the Worlds is an enduring classic for a good reason, and even if you know the story, it’s a book you absolutely must read.
10. The Shadow of the Torturer
The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.
Gene Wolfe’s highly regarded fantasy/science fiction epic is full of tantalising, vague descriptions hinting at the scope of his created world, Urth, which is actually our own Earth hundreds of thousands of years in the future, after civilisations have risen and fallen like tides on a shoreline. (The segment above, though it’s easy to miss it, is a description of an astronaut on the moon .) I found this tiresome by the second or third book in the series, but the first volume is fresh with creative wonder.
9. Earth Abides
Men go and come, but earth abides.
Earth Abides bridges the gap between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, beginning with university student Isherwood Williams surviving the plague that decimates mankind, and forging a group of survivors in the slowly decaying ruins of San Francisco. Eventually, as he grows older and tries but fails to teach his children about their lost heritage, he sinks into dementia knowing that he is the relic of a vanished civilisation, the final link between the wonders of the past and the new hunter-gatherers of the future. Earth Abides is a strongly written science fiction classic intercut with surprisingly beautiful vignettes of mankind’s domain returning to nature.
8. River of Gods
“By the way. In case you ever wonder what the Americans are decoding. They have found something in space and they have no idea what it is.”
A sprawling cyberpunk tale set in a balkanised India in 2047, River of Gods is one of those sci-fi epics that manages to cram in everything: artificial intelligence, first contact, genetic engineering, robotics, climate change, political change, and whatever else you could imagine the future will hold. It’s a coherent and believable vision of a future India, and if it’s a little rambling and unfocused, you can forgive that, because McDonald’s imagination is so grand it’s fun to go along for the ride.
7. Dark Eden
Nothing had changed. All we still had was Eden and each other, five hundred of us in the whole world, huddled up with our blackglass spears and our log boats and our bark shelters.
More than a hundred years ago astronauts Tommy and Angela were stranded on Eden, a rogue planet of eternal night, where green-blooded alien creatures skitter in the glowing light of geothermal trees in tiny valleys surrounded by freezing darkness. Now, with Tommy and Angela long dead, their five hundred descendants are approaching a Malthusian catastrophe as their inbred numbers grow ever more and and the game grows ever less. Chris Beckett’s most impressive achievement, to my eye, was Dark Eden’s overpowering sense of claustrophobia – not just the eternal gloom and the valley only a few miles wide, but the claustrophobia of living in a religious, authoritarian tribe, never able to go anywhere else or do anything different, writhing in the impossible knowledge that you and your people are trapped and alone in the darkest depths of space.
6. The Yellow Birds
Murph called to me once, in the small hours before daybreak, and asked me if I thought we’d be OK. I kept looking out the window, even though the night had covered it over completely with a small layering of ice. A streetlamp glowed with pale orange through the opacity. The air was cool and crisp in the room and I pulled my rough wool blanket tight around me. “Yeah, Murph. We’ll be OK,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.
The Yellow Birds initially appears to be a fairly autobiographical first novel by former soldier Kevin Powers, full of the heartache and anguish and trauma one would expect. As it goes on a mystery begins to develop and we realise that the protagonist, Bartle, has secrets he is hiding about his time in Iraq – secrets that have the military’s criminal investigation division sniffing around. The book is ultimately more about the pain of returning from war than being at war, and Bartle’s mid-book page-long breakdown rant is one of the best pieces of prose I’ve read in a long time.
5. As I Please
By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation but at humanity itself.
Probably the best of the four books that comprise Orwell’s collected essays, letters and reviews, because most of As I Please consists of the column he wrote which bore the same name – short weekly pieces which cover topics as broad as international politics, the joys of gardening, the ideal pub, memories of his time in Burma, American comics, etc. Orwell was not just a great writer but a fascinating man, the kind interested in anything and everything, who enjoyed everything life had to offer and served up an opinion on all of it.
4. Jack Maggs
The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognised it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: ‘Gin at Threepence – Generous Wines – Hot Spiced.’ This one here – it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.
Peter Carey’s twisted take on Dickens’ Great Expectations, one doesn’t need to have read the original novel to enjoy this tale of of a misunderstood convict returning home to London from the penal colonies of New South Wales. As an Australian reader, I was most struck by how my home appears as a strange and exotic place in the eyes of Maggs’ London acquaintances – a country of parrots and pelicans, with names like Parramatta and Taree, mentioned only through Maggs’ words and memories, standing in stark contrast to the familiar Dickensian landscape in which the novel actually takes place – sooty London and green and pleasant Gloucestershire. Peter Carey seems incapable of writing a dull paragraph, and while he does a brilliant job of imitating Dickens’ style, this is unmistakeably a book of his own magical prose.
3. The Dog Stars
Bangley, tell me what the fuck you want me to do? What should I do?
Breathe, I want you to breathe. They are stalking you Hig. They have all day. The way they see it. No rush. You are moving slow, they will close the distance. Little by little. Then they will charge you. They have done it before. They move like they have done this before. Copy?
The Dog Stars brings nothing new to the post-apocalyptic genre, but everything it does, it does brilliantly. Peter Heller’s first-person train-of-thought writing style is difficult to get into at first but soon becomes lyrical, painting a beautifully haunting picture of a derelict Colorado. The main character’s escape from a group of pursuers on his way back to his fortified airfield, aided only by his ex-military partner over the radio, is one of the most suspenseful set pieces I read all year.
2. Lord of the Flies
“-Or else,” said the Lord of the Flies, “We shall do you. See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?”
Anyone who can still remember the cruelty of children – the schoolyard politics, the bullying, the falling into line, the dominance of strong personalities whether they’re good or bad – will find Lord of the Flies to be disturbingly plausible. I’d seen the 1990 film version, but knowing how the story unfolds does nothing to alter the brutal impact of this bloodthirsty novel. Although it can sometimes read like it was designed to have essay questions for the class at the back, it’s nevertheless a brilliant and gut-wrenching book that deserves its literary reputation.
1. Oscar & Lucinda
This was in Devon, near Torquay. To pretend – as Theophilus did – that this was almost tropical, is like referring to a certain part of Melbourne as “the Paris end of Collins Street.” It is quite reasonable if you have never been to Paris, but once you have been there you can see the description as nothing more than wishful thinking. When I visit Devon I see nothing tropical. I am surprised, rather, that so small a county can contain such a vast and indifferent a sky. Devon seems cruel and cold. I look at the queer arrangement of rocks up on the moor and think of ignorance and poverty and cold, always the cold.
While there were moments in Oscar and Lucinda where I might fairly say I was bored, this is one of those books that grows so strong in retrospect, and leaves so many little moments glinting in your memory. Lucinda arriving in Circular Quay on a barge smelling of cabbages; Oscar’s father’s heart-wrenching farewell gift on the docks at Southampton; Oscar washing out inkpots in a Sydney laneway;a sudden burst of cockatoos flying behind a bushranger’s shoulder as he levels his pistol at Wardley-Fish. Most of all – beyond Carey’s endlessly entertaining, half-funny half-tragic prose – I was amazed by this novel because after 450 pages of mostly whimsical romantic comedy, it suddenly plunges into a dark and brutal nightmare, coming to a horrifying conclusion on the Bellinger River as flying foxes flap and flutter in the dusk above the sound of screams. One of the finest Australian novels I’ve ever read.
10. Burning Chrome
When the afterimage faded from Earth’s monitor screens, the Alyut was gone. In the Urals a middle-aged Georgian technician bit through the stem of his favourite meerschaum. In New South Wales a young physicist began to slam the side of his monitor, like an enraged pinball finalist protesting TILT.
Looking back on this collection, I was unsurprised to notice that I remembered choice phrases or overall tone more than I remembered the actual plots of the stories themselves. William Gibson has always (for me, at least) been an author more about style than substance – or perhaps an author so closely immersed in crazy post-modern academia that my simple caveman brain can’t tell the difference between the two. I enjoyed the hell out of Burning Chrome nonetheless.
9. The Fatal Shore
Upon the harbour the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all. Until the swollen sails and curvetting bows of the British fleet came round South Head, there were no doubts. The Aborigines and the fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial, and no other human eye had seen them. Now the protective glass of distance broke, in an instant, never to be restored.
I was talking to a Kiwi co-worker a while ago and trying to get out of them the specific date New Zealand was first settled – a question Wikipedia and Google had failed to answer. I didn’t understand, at the time, that there was no specific date; that New Zealand had been first settled in dribs and drabs by missionaries, whalers and pirates, and that Australia’s 17-ship fleet of official British settlers was the exception amongst New World nations, not the norm. Did you know that the First Fleet was the largest voyage ever undertaken by such a large group of people, and that nothing on par with it before or since had ever been attempted?
My point is that Australian history is more interesting than many Australians imagine. Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore is not a comprehensive history of Australia, but it is an exhaustive history of the British convict transport system, an integral part of early Australian history. It’s fascinating, vivid and compelling in a way I never expected history books to be, probably becuase Hughes (who died a month after I read this book) was usually a critic, not a historian. The Fatal Shore is well worth reading for anyone who wants to learn more about Australian history.
8. A Monster Calls
The monster smiled. It was a ghastly sight. If I must force my way in, it said, I will do so happily.
The concept for A Monster Calls originated with Siobhan Dowd, but before she passed away from cancer she entrusted it to Patrick Ness, who has done a sterling job with it. A Monster Calls is an illustrated YA novelette following a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who must also cope with nightly visits from a horrifying monster demanding to know “the truth.” An adult reader will quickly see this is an allegorical novel, but figuring out what it’s an allegory for (before it’s revealed, I mean) is not as obvious.
Aside from being an excellent story, the first hardback edition of A Monsters Calls is an aesthetic beauty, enhanced on every page by Jim Kay’s beautiful illustrations – or rather, in the sence of invoking horror, his horrible illustrations.
7. A Game of Thrones
“If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”
Sometimes I use a single book to stand in for an entire series – in this case, A Game of Thrones truly is the finest book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. That’s not to belittle the series as a whole, which is an excellent saga of political fantasy, but none of the subsequent books can quite match the power of the first. Perfectly voiced, brilliantly paced and containing some of the most unexpectedly shocking scenes a reader will ever find in genre fiction, A Game of Thrones deserves all the applause it gets.
6. The Magician King
That’s what death did. It treated you like a child, like everything you had ever thought and done and cared about was just a child’s game, to be crumpled up and thrown away when it was over. It didn’t matter. Death didn’t respect you. Death thought you were bullshit, and it wanted to make sure you knew it.
A wonderful, enthralling and bittersweet sequel to Grossman’s novel The Magicians, The Magician King takes Quentin Coldwater on quests and adventures through multiple worlds, and features more of the author’s adept combination of literary deconstruction and genuinely enjoyable adventure. Best of all, Grossman doesn’t merely repeat the themes and morals of the first novel – which would be tempting, given how unique they were for the genre the first time around – but develops Quentin into a more mature and likeable character, which is an admirable accomplishment, given that the point of the first novel was partially about Quentin’s inability to develop and mature.
5. King City
There’s so much of this town that I never think about. All this city going on all at once. You can spend forever in a place like this and still see hundreds of new faces every day. Face. Face. Face. All of everyone piled up on each other. I wonder how much is going on in all those windows.
Cities are amazing places. Millions and millions of people rubbing up against each other, all the stories inside their heads, all those little universes concentrated into one. On a map they look like spiderwebs shooting roads out. what was King City about? I can’t remember, exactly. But I can remember what it felt like – a big, bold, brash, fun adventure in an awesome, crazy city where anything can happen.
4. The Long Walk
“Do you think you’ll win, Ray?”
Garraty considered it for a long, long time.
“No,” he said finally. “No, I… no.”
Stephen King is widely known as a horror writer, but I’ve always found the appeal in his books to be their fascinating situations: a superflu wiping out civilisation, a mist full of monsters enveloping a town, travelling back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination, and so on. I never find his books unsettling or disturbing, let alone frightening. That changed with The Long Walk – a young adult novel set in a dystopian America where a hundred teenage boys participate annually in the titular competition. They start on the US/Canadian border and begin walking south. There are no rest breaks. If you stop, you get shot. Last man standing wins. It predates Battle Royale and The Hunger Games by a good few decades (King began writing it during the Vietnam War, and it’s at least partly an allegory for conscription) and he manages to make the whole thing horribly realistic – the cold gaze of the carbine-bearing soldiers, the fanatic screaming of the onlookers, and the terrible agonising pain of having to walk or die. One of his greatest novels.
3. Riddley Walker
There wernt nothing terbel happening and yet there wer. Whats so terbel its just that knowing of the horrer in every thing. The horrer waiting. I dont know how to say it. Like say you myt get cut bad and all on a suddn there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it. You always knowit what wer unner the skin only you dont want to see that bloody meat and boan. Never mynd.
The gimmick of Riddley Walker is that it’s a post-apocalyptic novel written in debased pidgin English, mimicking the manner in which people might speak two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust. The marvel of Riddley Walker is that Hoban has actually developed a consistent form of pidgin with its own rules, quirks and phrases. But beyond its inventiveness, Riddley Walker is simply an excellent post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. Hoban’s invented language is brilliant, and I’m glad he wrote the book with it, but the impressive thing is that he didn’t even need to.
“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”
Disgrace – deserved winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, written by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee – is the kind of book where it’s difficult to explain why it’s so good. It merely is. You can throw around staple book review words like “masterful” and “elegant” and “engrossing” or you can just say that this is a really, really, really good book – one of the finest novels of the last 25 years, with not a word or a sentence out of place, remarkably accessible for a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and all packed into a concise two hundred pages.
1. The Magicians
Brakebills let out for the last two weeks of December. At first Quentin wasn’t sure why he was terrified of going home until he realised that it wasn’t home he was worried about, per se. He was worried that if he left Brakebills they’d never let him back in. He would never find his way back again – they would close the secret door to the garden behind him, and lock it, and its outline would be lost forever among the vines and the stonework, and he would be trapped out in the real world forever.
What would happen if your childhood fantasies came true? What if you could really go off to Hogwarts to study magic? What would happen if you could really walk through a gateway into Narnia to have fantastic adventures? Would it make you happy?
The fundamental themes of Grossman’s novel The Magicians – that realising our fantasies could ultimately be hollow, that the perfect is the enemy of the good, that ennui is a pervasive gloom that can’t easily be defeated – seem trite when summarised. Grossman succeeds in writing about them by creating a fantasy world that is authentically exciting, desirable and fantastic. If Brakebills, his American wizard college located in upstate New York, was merely a stylistic metaphor for Hogwarts (as it doubtless would be if a proper “literary” author had written it) The Magicians would be a dull, stale novel. But Brakebills is a place that’s genuinely appealing to imagine, as is Fillory, Grossman’s Narnia fascimile. By creating a fantasy world that simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the fantasy genre, Grossman has written one of its finest novels, and The Magicians is the best book I read in 2012. It also contains one of the most disturbing chapters (and ending to said chapter) that I’ve ever read. Read this book.
2011 was my personal best year yet for books – 55, although that includes four graphic novels and two quarterly essays. Here’s my annual list of the best books I read for the year (not the best books that were published in the year).
10. A Little History of the World
What we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.
History is a huge, complex and difficult subject, which is why we often prefer to learn about it from blockbuster films or period dramas and thus come away somewhat misinformed. You are never going to get a comprehensive understanding of human history unless you dedicate your life to it, but if you have a merely casual interest, A Little History of the World is not a bad place to start. Commendable for his understanding that history is more about opinions, attitudes and how societies relate to each other than it is about dates and battles, Gombrich brings this book to life with the air of a scholarly grandfather telling his children a story by the fireplace.
A Little History of the World at The Book Depository
9. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
“Welcome to England!”
The concept of having thousands of fictional characters stuffed into one world didn’t greatly appeal to me as much as I thought it would, but the second volume of Alan Moore’s thought experiment is largely a retelling of War of the Worlds, and is terrifyingly brilliant. That means it’s largely piggybacking off the success of another work, but whatever. I do intend to read the original someday.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at The Book Depository
8. The Testament of Jessie Lamb
I felt as flat and heavy as if a steamroller were on top of me. I just wanted it to end.
It can be diffcult – almost impossible – to writte a novel from a teenager’s perspective without it becoming an insufferable moanfest. And indeed, The Testament of Jessie Lamb features all the uncertainty and naivitie and foolishness and foot-stamping that one would expect from a novel narrated by a teenage girl. Yet it’s also a much darker novel, about the intersection between our acknowledgement that sacrifices must be made for the greater good, and our hostile unwillingness to actually let our loved ones make them. There’s also a darker, implicit undercurrent running through this book – or at least I thought there was – about Jessie’s real motives.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb at The Book Depository
7. The English Patient
Give me a map and I’ll build you a city. Give me a pencil and I’ll draw you a room in South Cairo, desert charts on the wall. Always the desert was among us. I could wake and raise my eyes to the map of old settlements along the Mediterranean coast – Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh – and south of that the hand-painted wadis, and surrounding those the shades of yellowness that we invaded, tried to lose ourselves in.
A difficult book to read after seeing the masterful film, since the scenes are often identical and the visual version plays itself out in your mind as you read. But Ondaatje’s novel is undoubtedly one of the finest of the last decade (I cannot understand why it shared the Booker with Sacred Hunger), a melancholy tale of desert exploration and forbidden love and Italian castles and bombs raining down on England. His lyrical prose style is, quite simply, beautiful.
The English Patient at The Book Depository
6. The Road To Wigan Pier
On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way that they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a kind of ghost forever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole.
Lord knows how a book about the miserable conditions of the working class in Depression-era North England managed to be funny, but somehow Orwell managed it. He also manages to be a spoilt Southern lad turning his nose up at the characteristics and mannerisms of the wretched poor without ever seeming like a jerk. The Road To Wigan Pier is, as always with his books, “both an excellent book and a valuable social document,” and the fact that Orwell can keep your interest even when discussing the vanished political situations of the 1930s is a testament to his ability as a writer.
The Road To Wigan Pier at The Book Depository
5. Homage To Catalonia
Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal Weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
George Orwell went and fought for something he deeply believed in. As so often happens with things we deeply believe in, it became corrupted, and he became more gradually disillusioned with it until it came to the point where he was actually a fugitive and was forced to flee the country. Homage To Catalonia is a deeply political book, and can be difficult going for the modern reader, but like A Road To Wigan Pier it is well worth the effort. It contains not just an account of its own time, but a deeper examination of human experience. Being a stranger in a foreign land, watching your beliefs be compromised and corrupted by the subversion of powerful forces, and the final prescient remarks mixed in with the nostalgic joy of returning home.
Homage To Catalonia at The Book Depository
“I know this is insane, but sometimes I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents, so I could really know what they lived through.”
We have reached saturation point with the Holocaust – with all of World War II, in fact. At least I have. The sights and sounds and facts and feelings have bombarded me my entire life, and the generation before me as well. It holds about as much reality to me as the War of the Ring, and stirs no emotion within me. This is a sad thing, but the answer is not yet more Holocaust and world War II stories.
The reason I found Maus to be so engaging was that it is not simply a Holocaust story, relying on its own historical weight for emotional punch, like so many Oscar bait movies. I’s about growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor, about spending your whole life hearing about the horrors of something you can’t even imagine. It’s about dealing with someone who, despite being a victim of a terrible crime, is a bit of an asshole. It’s about coping with the long and far-reaching ramifications of something as huge and terrible of the Holocaust. It’s about having creative and financial success after writing a series of comic books about a genocide you never experienced. It’s about many, many things, all of them ripple effects of the 20th century’s greatest crime. Maus is an elegant, thoughtful and profoundly sad masterpiece.
Maus at The Book Depository
3. The Sisters Brothers
He stood there weeping and watching us go, while behind him Lucky Paul entered and collapsed the prospector’s tent, and I thought, “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.”
A very, very weird book, flippant and off-beat and darkly humourous and however many thousand adjectives various reviewers used to describe it. The best word, I believe, is “”unique. It is certainly a funny book, a dark comedy, and yet it is also entirely serious and, towards the end, even touching. It is undoubtedly a literary book, and one worthy of Booker shortlisting – better than The Sense of an Ending, certainly.
The Sisters Brothers at The Book Depository
2. The White Tiger
Now, what happens in your typical Murder Weekly story – or Hindi film, for that matter? A poor man kills a rich man. Good. Then he takes the money. Good. Then he gets dreams in which the dead man pursues him with bloody fingers, saying Mur-der-er, Mur-der-er.
Doesn’t happen like that in real life… The real nightmare you get is the other kind. You toss about in the bed dreaming that you haven’t done it – that you lost your nerve and let Mr. Ashok get away – that you’re still in Delhi, still the servant of another man, and then you wake up.
There are seven billion people in the world. One billion of those live in luxury in the developed regions of Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. Seven billion of those live in the less developed regions of Asia, Africa and South America, in circumstances ranging from the reasonably comfortable middle-class of China to the crushing, squalid poverty of Sudan.
This is not fair.
It’s an issue entirely separate from that of political oppression. If you were to pick the most wretched nation on Earth, you might well choose North Korea. But even in India – the world’s largest democracy, albeit a corrupt one – millions of people live in their own filth, with no hope of anything better. They live in an almost medieval world, which we cannot even imagine in our world of skyscrapers and frappucinos and iPhones.
The White Tiger is a novel about those worlds colliding. It’s not what I’d call an enjoyable story; it’s an allegory, a book with a definite point to it, and a book that I believe is absolutely essential reading, but which I will probably never read again. It’s a book about a man born into dire poverty who realises how bitterly unjust that fate is – and who, after much agonising soul-searching, murders an innocent man in order to lift himself out of that fate. I can’t sum it up any better than I did in my review:
Who among us truly knows what horrible things we would be capable of doing to escape Balram’s fate? Who among us has the right to judge him?
A dark and gripping novel about the greatest injustice that exists in our world.
The White Tiger at The Book Depository
1. Jamrach’s Menagerie
A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own. Another watching, a huge thing, solid and impassive as a rock, huge, trunk-like legs planted before it.
Jamrach’s Menagerie begins on an exciting wave of youthful exuberance, adventure and discovery, and plunges into an abyss of horrific misery. Eight-year old Jaffy Brown is rescued from an escaped tiger in Dickensian London, and is given a job tending to the menagerie of the tiger’s owner. A few years later he finds himself enlisted on a sea voyage to capture a Komodo dragon, forming bonds with his fellow teenage sailors and his best friend Tim as they get up to all manner of exciting escapades. The Azores, a whale hunt, tropical islands, the prize of the dragon…
…and everything collapses. Jaffy and his friends are embroiled in a living nightmare, every step and every page dragging them further along a hellish path of survival. In the hands of a lesser author this would seem like an incongruous twist. In the hands of Carol Birch, it struck me as realistic. We go through our lives, we enjoy ourselves, we have fun, and then disaster and terror and the explicit, visceral nature of the physical world we live in looms up out of nowhere. The routine of life masks that reality like our skin masks our organs.
I have never read a scene more heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching than that which occurs between Tim and Jaffy at the climax of this novel. I literally couldn’t put it down. Carol Birch was robbed of a Booker prize.
Jamrach’s Menagerie at The Book Depository
With the completion of The Sense of An Ending, I’ve wrapped up my Booker Prize Challenge 2011 with more than a week to spare. Prediction time!
There are two different picks to make: which book deserves to win, and which book will actually win. The first is much simpler beacause it essentially means “which book did I like the most?” From worst to best, they were:
Pigeon English is the only one I outright disliked, although the top two are the only ones which I think are definitely worth reading. Jamrach’s Menagerie is by far the greatest: an exciting and evocative adventure story which eventually becomes a gripping and terrifying tale of a brutal ordeal. Carol Birch has penned a marvellous novel which is head and shoulders above its competitors,and she absolutely deserves the 2011 Booker prize.
But will she actually win it? Unfortunately, my personal opinions do not always set the standard the rest of the world follows, so there’s always the chance the jury may select something different. Predicting which book will actually win involves examining the jury itself – specifically the books it selected for the longlist and the shortlist, and public comments made by its members.
General agreement holds that this year’s longlist had some unusual selections, and even more unusual was which books made it to the shortlist. Snowdrops was a particularly suprising wild card, being a genre novel that doesn’t make apologies for itself and, while not a bad book at all, doesn’t deserve to win one of the world’s greatest annual literary awards. (Not because it’s a genre novel, but rather because it’s not a particularly amazing genre novel.) The Sisters Brothers and Half-Blood Blues are more “literary” than Snowdrops, but still unusual inclusions, given that they are unusual books. The jury’s decision to accept these books – and its decision to cut literary heavyweight Alan Hollinghurst – is quite telling. It’s backed up by statements from the panel, with Chris Mullen saying the books had to “zip along” and Stella Rimington saying “we were looking for enjoyable books.”
This set literary snobs all a-flutter because, as we all know, Literature Is Not Meant To Be Fun. I’ve talked in the past about my Venn Diagram theory of literature: that there are books with literary merit, and there are books that are fun and enjoyable to read, and that a deadly boring piece of literature which won critical acclaim is not really any better for you than the latest ghost-written Robert Ludlum thriller. There are plenty of books which are interesting and fun while still having literary merit, so why bother with the other types? I feel quite sorry for critics who have convinced themselves that “readability” and “enjoyment” are Bad Things, and somehow mutually exclusive to Real Literature.
So the shortlist selection and judges’ comments reveal that that Booker panel this year is largely in line with my own ways of thinking about literature. Or, in other words, I believe that Jamrach’s Menagerie is the book which both deserves to win and will win. It combines a 19th century boy’s adventure and a grisly ordeal of survival with a very poignant tale about brotherhood, friendship and sacrifice. It is one of the best books of the year and absolutely deserves to sit alongside previous great winners like Life of Pi and The English Patient.
(If this prediction is wrong I am going to have such a hissy fit.)
I hadn’t read nearly enough of the Booker longlist to make an informed prediction before it was announced yesterday, but I did anyway, on Twitter…
#manbookerprize shortlist prediction: stranger’s child, pigeon english, on canaan’s side, jamrach’s menagerie, sense of an ending, far to go
…and was way off the mark. The actual shortlist is:
Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch
2 out of 6 is pretty bad, but I’m actually quite pleased with the real selection. My shortlist prediction was based around the idea that more interesting, unconventional genre works would be excluded, because for some reason I imagine the Booker panel to be comprised of people like David Stratton, who cluck their tongues and stroke their beards when given something unconventional.
So it’s a shame I wasted weeks slogging through Alan Hollinghurst’s ten-kilogram novel The Stranger’s Child, but on the bright side I now have a number of books I look forward to reading. I’ve already read Half-Blood Blues, and wrongly bet that it wouldn’t make the shortlist, but I still doubt it will win. I’m currently halfway through Jamrach’s Menagerie, and not enjoying it as much as I thought I would, but it is starting to pick up a bit. I particularly look forward to reading The Sisters Brothers, a rollicking Western adventure, and Snowdrops, a literary thriller set in Moscow. The Sense of an Ending is the most firmly literary of the group, but is also quite slim and will be a breeze to read; Pigeon English is a tale about African immigrants and gang warfare in London, which I suspected would be shortlisted after the recent riots gave it a topical boost.
I’m not going to make a prediction for winner yet, but I’m definitely going to read all of them and do so before the winner is announced in October. And they’ll doubtless pick the wrong one, and I’ll bitch and moan about it, but this year I’ll be qualified to do so!
I had an epiphany yesterday: bookstores deserve to die.
I have wanted to be an author my entire life. I work in a bookstore. In the brewing war between traditional brick stores and ebooks/online retailers, I would have previously been galloping into battle alongside fellow bookstore lovers. I love browsing, I love discovering books I’ve never seen before, I love the different moods and characters of independent stores. I love the musty smell and quiet atmosphere of a second-hand store – I recall one store in Marylebone that was so cram-packed full of books that you literally couldn’t get down the aisles. I love the jumbled decorations and hipster music of stores like Readings or Planet Books. I love being in a foreign country and tracking down an English-language bookstore, a homely refuge of familiar Western culture – the best English-language bookstore in Asia, by the way, is What The Book in Seoul.
All that was my point of view as a reader, a consumer and a customer. I’d be lying if I said I never used online retail – it’s vastly cheaper than inflated Australian retail prices, and I’m more or less guaranteed of finding the book I need. But I felt guilty about it, especially using The Book Depository, which I’m pretty sure is deliberately selling books at a loss in order to gain a market share. I still shop at independent stores, and when I use Abe Books I always try to shop from stores in Australia or New Zealand. I’m no hippie, but I don’t feel comfortable having a book flown all the way from England or the US just to save myself a few extra bucks.
But my point of view as a bookseller? I’ve worked at my current store for about six months. Recently our stock manager went on holiday for a few weeks, and I accepted the offer of covering for her, since it meant regular hours and less customer service. Yesterday I tackled the thousands upon thousands of overstock books in our warehouse and spare room.
When a book in a bookstore is not sold, it is not marked down – at least, not at my store. It is “returned,” and packaging and sending returns is a huge part of a stock manager’s job. Nobody had done returns at my store for months, which was why we could barely move in our back room. Yesterday I went through the shelves and pulled all the books that had been there for more than five months; some had been there longer than a year. Today I packaged some to be mailed back tomorrow. I filled 33 large cardboard boxes merely with United stock (Allen & Unwin, Simon & Schuster and Penguin). The place is still drowning in a swamp of books from Harper Collins, Hatchette, Random House and dozens of smaller publishers.
I would estimate that we sell less than 30% of the books that enter our store. The rest, ultimately, become returns. As I understand it, the distributors send them to other stores after they’re returned; maybe they return them too, and the cycle goes on until the books are all sold. Or maybe they get pulped. The number of books that get damaged during shipping, or when I’m scraping price stickers off with a razor blade, means a large number of them probably get pulped anyway.
But their ultimate fate is irrelevant. What I’m getting at is that the system in place is monumentally inefficient. We ship massive numbers of new releases and promotional stock into the store, sell a handful of them, eventually relegate them to the normal shelves, sell a few more, then – once they’ve been out for a month or two – leave a few copies on the shelf and shove the rest onto the teetering piles in the back room. Allegedly they’re kept there to restock the shelves when those few copies out there are sold, but in reality those copies don’t sell, and the extra two dozen copies out the back sit there until they’re returned.
If you’re even remotely environmentally conscious, consider the impact of all those trucks and planes going back and forth, ferrying unwanted piles of books between suppliers and stores, all so we can have a fully-stocked promotional display for Paulo Coelho’s new book, or because the last Harry Potter movie was released and there might be a few families left out there who don’t own the books, or because somebody at head office had a gut feeling that “Last Man In Tower” would sell 140 copies (I’m not exaggerating, we literally got 140 copies).
It might seem like a leap to go from complaining about this, to saying that bookstores deserve to die. We live in an interlinked, global society, and probably everything you or I own was manufactured overseas and shipped to us in the first world. There are already tens of thousands of cargo ships criss-crossing the oceans, gradually killing them; already thousands of planes in the sky, already millions of trucks on the road. What does it matter if the bookstore supply model is part of that ravenous machine?
It matters, I think, because we have a more efficient alternative. We have e-readers – which I’m not a fan of, but which are unquestionably more efficient in terms of both transport and raw materials, and which will probably endear themselves to the next generation. Closer to my point, we have online retailing, which still provides readers with the comfort, style and possession of a physical book. Ordering books from Amazon or The Book Depository or Abe Books still involves mailing them out to you, still involves that global supply chain – but there is no wasted travel. You select the book online, pay for it, and it’s sent directly to you. None of this zig-zagging back and forth like Odysseus, shuttled from store to warehouse to supplier to store, in the vain hope of finding a buyer.
All this makes me sound like some kind of efficiency-devoted robot who cares nothing for books and literature, but that’s not the case. We will always have second-hand books, and as James Bradley argues, we’re likely to see physical books become more of a status or prestige item in the coming years. I always notice when browsing at Readings that they tend to stock nicer editions of books; hardbacks, and books with interesting covers, like this edition of “The Slap.” I think independent bookstores will persist for some time yet, out of customer loyalty if nothing else; I know of nobody who was sad to see Borders and Angus & Robertson close down (apart from their shareholders), but there were plenty of long faces when Reader’s Feast closed its doors. For dedicated book lovers, I suspect there will always be a few places in any major city where they may indulge themselves.
But for casual readers, who comprise the vast majority of the buyers – people who buy paperbacks from supermarkets and newsagents and chain bookstores like Dymocks – a more efficient model has emerged. The online retailer is more environmentally friendly, more likely to have the books in stock that the reader wants, and has low overhead costs which are passed on to the consumer. Bookstores (like all stores, I suppose) were the only option for many centuries. That’s no longer the case. Like recording companies and real estate agents and video stores, they are middle-men, struggling to stay afloat after being rendered useless by a ubiquitous global communications network.
There are three responses I can see people making to my argument. The first is, as always,“But jobs will be lost!!!” This is never an excuse for anything. Eventually technology renders jobs obsolete. Deal with it, and get a new job. As I said, I hope there will still be a few independent and second-hand stores around, providing jobs for those who are truly passionate about being booksellers. For the vast majority of booksellers who work for companies that treat books like potatoes (which includes mine), there will always be plenty of other general retail jobs.
The second response is that I may be wrong about the scope and extent of the inefficient system, and it may simply be that my company is exceptionally badly-run. This would come as no surprise; they run a wide variety of retail stores, and head office often fails to grasp a lot of the fundamentals of being a bookstore (because, as Henry Rosenbloom points out, books are a hands-on, detail-intensive business which can only be run successfully by people who love books and know their stuff). Our staff turnover is amazing, and one of our senior employees told me the other day that she has never in her life worked for a company more poorly run than this one. Maybe other stores sell a lot more than 30% of their stock. If anyone well-informed would like to correct me, please leave a comment.
The third response is that it’s hypocritical of me to say that bookstores deserve to die out while still hoping that plenty of cool independent stores and second-hand stores survive. Well, you try spending all day boxing up Eckhart Tolle books and Snooki’s autobiography and see how you feel at the end.