Sunday, 3 January 2010

My Reading Year 2009

So, this blog is mostly supposed to be about the books I read, but I can't help drifting off topic from time to time. By way of remedial action, here is a lengthy review of the books I read in 2009. To cut to the chase, of all the books I read this year, these are the ones I'd recommend:

Escape From Hell by Hal Duncan
Madam Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Five doesn't seem like many - a mere handful! - but clench them and this handful makes a fist! Furthermore, I don't wish to over-burden you! Don't we all know the problem: so many recommendations so little time! If you want to know more about why I recommend these books, read on!

This is not a review of the “books of 2009” as you might see in the broadsheets around Christmas time because I don't read many books in the year they're published. I generally know about new books as they come out and they get added to the list in my head of “things I'd quite like to read”, but then they have to make it through the difficult selection process to make it into my hands. They make their way to me in many different ways, and while I try to direct matters, to a large extent it's the elements out of my control that dictate what I read.

At the start of the year, for example, I was working on an essay on the topic of SF dystopias, and consequently I mostly re-read the books I'd chosen to focus on in that essay. I focused on The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth, 1984 by George Orwell, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Grey by Jon Armstrong.

I've read the former pair many times, and I enjoyed them immensely again this time around. They make an interesting comparison as they appeared at about the same time and show the divergent concerns on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, we were reeling from the shocks of European fascism, in the USA they were worrying about being taken over by a system of untrammelled corporatism and consumerism.

While 1984 is the better book, it's the illusion of freedom criticised in The Space Merchants that seems to have come about, perhaps precisely because 1984 is the better book. There's more to it than Newspeak and Big Brother. In fact, that's the least of it, and it's filled with intriguing little eddies and backway, but it is Orwell's portrait of a human soul crushed and destroyed by the brutal system that makes its message so powerful. Kornbluth & Pohl's larky tone, on the other hand, makes their horrific world less shocking, easier to dismiss. Their book hasn't survived changes in literary fashion as well as Orwell's, either, mostly in the tone and style of the prose.

Little Brother and Grey occupy similar places on the spectrum. I admired Little Brother more than I enjoyed it, as it's hectoring tone got to me a little. I'm a middle aged guy and I find clever, energetic and good-hearted teens wearying. I think it works better as a primer for general teen rebellion than for its more overtly stated political purpose. The exhortations to read and to understand the political structures that support the world of western capitalism are well made, but Mikey's antagonists were just a little too pantomime villains to be believable.

In comparison, I was drawn to Armstrong's outrageous sense of humour and his eye for dead-pan fashion surrealism. Grey has a glam rock vibe that resonated to me from the classic silver-age era, cynical and mocking, revelling in excess and ludicrous melodrama. It reminded me of The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling, Moorcock's Dancers At the End of Time, Pohl & Korbluth, and 2000AD and Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant cicra 1985.

At this time I also picked up copies of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch thinking I might use them in my essay, but I never did. Having bought them, I read them anyway, because I was still feeling am bit stressed wrestling with everything and didn't have the necessary spare mental energy to select anything else.

However, these are among Dick's best novels, a couple of the handful of classics he turned out in the mid to late sixties, and worth returning to from time-to-time to remind oneself of how the master does it. Both of them see him treading. They are masterpieces of straight, novelistic sci fi, that express the feelings of their age through the emotions of its characters. PKD has always been the epitome of what I think good books are – funny, sad, wise and entirely individualistic, and in these two he treads the fine line between surrealism and madness, staying just the right side of self-discipline the whole time.

Having made it through all these re-reads, I ordered a bunch of stuff from amazon (or amazon sellers...) based on reviews and what-have-you, and ended up with Escape From Hell by Hal Duncan and Spirit by Gwyneth Jones. The former was a lot of fun: Hell imagined as New York and the novel a kind of homage to Escape From New York. It gets a little bogged down in all that Lucifer's-the-good-guy-and-God's-a-bastard stuff that we're all slightly tired of from comics and movies, the first half in particular is really quite excellent, and the whole thing is refreshingly short. Duncan's other novels don't look like my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this a lot! This one goes on my "recommended" list for being well-executed, funny and short.

Spirit was a more difficult experience. It was well done, but a really good example of what I don't like very much. It's a sprawling space opera epic thing with a cast of dozens and a complex plot of political and personal intrigue, plus aliens and crazy space travel effects. All those elements were well done but I found it hard to keep track of the plot, partly because of the fractured way I was reading it (I had much else on) and partly because I'm a bit dim about that sort of thing. It was good to take a look a contemporary space opera, but it was a reminder that I'm just not that kind of guy.

Also around this time I read a trio of books about the kind of new age/occult stuff I find endlessly fascinating.

Sex & Rockets was about the rocket engineer and occultist Jack Parsons It provided a fairly even-handed look at both his professional life and outside interests, although was perhaps a little less salacious than I'd hoped!

Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall was about the influential new age philosopher, who was most active in between about 1920 and 1950, and increasingly irrelevant thereafter as the sixties took hold. He was the last of those Blavatsky-style autodidacts to really capture mainstream appeal. This was an okay book, good on the fact, but a little light on interpretation and background on his actual beliefs (maybe because they were somewhat wishy-washy). Much coverage of his comings and goings, very little on personalities or conflict. The final chapters covering his decline and death during the seventies and eighties were the most interesting - maybe these should have been the focus of the book, rather than trying to cover all the decades of his life evenly.

Finally, I re-read Madam Blavatsky's Baboon, a fascinating account of the theosophical movement and various of its offshoots, taking in Gudjieff, Ouspensky and Steiner and some of their late 20th descendants. I've read this one before and its an enjoyable parade of loons, grifters and the occasional person who really seems to have insight to offer. This one gets on the "recommended" list for being an enjoyable "shadow history" of twentieth century thought. These are the people who started from the same places as many of the founders of history and science, but who got it all wildly wrong!

These books reveal how people might behave if magic was real, a topic I find endlessly fascinating. I've been thinking for quite some time abut a horror/supernatural novel set in colonial New Zealand using this sort of 19th occultims as a background. The basic research material is built – the basics of NZ's colonial history were drilled into me at school and researching Bridges of New Zealand and Churches of New Zealand all those years ago bolstered this and gave it a social context of how the country developed. The above reading was to supplement my thinking on this, but I've put the project on the back-burner. I've got all sorts of interesting things to say about myth and the nature of The Other and stuff, but I don't have any compelling characters to embody it all. Without good characters with clear ambitions it's hard to write and so, away it goes, for now.

This thinking was going on the context of my MA course, and the only complete book I ever read, cover-to-cover, on the subject of creative writing is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, which I read next. This was excellent book, pithy, direct and uncompromising, while also genuinely enthusiastic and inspiring. He praises Asimov and Howard the Duck - what's not to like! I'd also reccommend this one to non-writers as I think it illuminates some of the mysteries of fiction in worthwhile ways without touching on the more academic reaches of lit crit.

After this, I read Hangman's Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers, a collection of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and her lesser-known creation Montague Egg (wine salesman and amateur sleuth). I was interested in reading some short detective fiction, just to see if I could figure out how it works. And I discovered here one annoying stylistic quirk: just before the mystery is solved, she cuts to a scene where Whimsey/Egg explains it all, summarising the “detective” part of the story. I guess it keeps things short, but talk about telling not showing!

Next up, I re-read The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, again for an essay I was working on. I first read this when I was twelve or so, and probably read it two or three times more over the course of my teens. It's safe to say that they don't write them like this any more! It was VERY fifties USA, with a lot post-war angst topics explored - consumerism, conformism, fear of children, apocalypse. The stories were well done, but seem somewhat cliched now - that whole mode of story telling created a little sub-genre that flowered and bloomed over the next quarter of a century. Even for soft-SF these stories pay little attention to science - they're mostly fantasies, some of which take place in the back drop of rockets.

Of them all, I think "The Rocket" stands up best - I found it genuinely moving. "The Veld" is still pleasingly creepy and "The Long Rain" and "Kaleidoscope" work brilliantly. The rest are a mixed bag. No real stinkers (of course!) but stuff like "The Other Foot" and "The Visitor" seem somewhat mawkish now.

I flung myself back in to the present day with Market Forces by Richard Morgan, which I picked up for a couple of quid at a second hand shop. I remember enjoying Altered Carbon a lot and Black Man was a critical hit and award winner, so I was hoping for something really keen here. Instead, it was a rather stolid take on a very hoary old cliche - capitalism red in tooth and claw. I guess the bombastic airport-thriller style suited the subject matter, but there didn't seem to be any irony in the machismo - fast cars, fine whiskey and unlikely sexual shennanigans were apparently to be taken at face value.

I also read Morgan's Black Man later in the year. This was the Clarke Award winner in 2008, and while I'm not a big believer in awards, I was willing to give this a go on the award and good will that lingered from Altered Carbon. Maybe Market Forces was a problematic second novel blip. In fact, I ordered it new from amazon rather than wait for it to make its way through the second hand bookshop coincidence-based system I usually rely on.

As it happens, I didn't enjoy that one much, either.

Like Spirit, I think these are books that I dislike in a categorical rather than for specific reasons (although I enjoyed Spirit more than these). There are lots of elements that are part of the genre furniture that you have to accept when you put your behind on the genre settee and your feet up on the genre occasional table, they're just not my kink. I did think that both Morgan's books were a bit undercooked – there seemed to be a lot of padding in Market Forces and Black Man's narrative drive faltered about two-thirds through – but these are the kind of faults I'd be likely to dismiss if I had more sympathy with the genre. I'm a Jack Vance fan, after all!

Well, before Black Man, I actually read more Dorothy L Sayers, in Unnatural Death, a Lord Peter Whimsey mystery. This was a real pleasure. Light, but not insubstantial, a complex but not complicated mystery and a beautiful, unfussy prose style with wry tone that never undercuts the action. I really enjoyed this much more than I enjoyed Hangman's Holiday.

Next up a few second hand bookshop specials. These are the sorts of book I often think about reading, but without sufficient ardour to seek them out. If they happen across my path cheap – either second hand or from a cancelled lines outlet – I'll always pounce. Sometimes they sit on my pile for a time, maybe years (as with Galactic Medal of Honour) but one day their day arrives and they are taken down.

On this occasion, though, I read them when I bought them, one summer afternoon after a haircut in Greenwich, I believe. First up was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I actually read this before Black Man (which I actually read after A Perfect Spy), and I was struck by the similarity of theme in the two books, and the different ways it was approached.

The one that speaks most tellingly to me is the choice of characters to write about. In the futuristic section of Cloud Atlas we get the story of Sonmi~451, a genetically engineered fast-food restaurant worker, while Morgan gives us Marsalis, the super-powered tough guy. Sonmi~451 seems to me to be a type of character more firmly rooted in the real world than and Marsalis. I feel I have some insight on what working in a fast food restaurant is like, certainly more than I have in being anyn kind of tough, super-powered or otherwise. For me, I prefer Mitchell's imagining of the future in terms of the lives of the types of people I might meet on the street today. I guess I just don't believe that people like Marsalis exist in the real world, while Sonmi strikes me as a very realistic character indeed.

I enjoyed all the wrapped together stories of Cloud Atlas immensely, but I'm going to do a wee bit of carping here. I read some where not long ago once (maybe it was something by John Gardner; maybe it was just some bullshit I read on the internet) saying that the rise of literary studies over the last century had led to the creation of a "type" of book (I hesitate to use the g-word here) written with the class room in mind. Find the themes, find the recurring images, look for echoes and action in the structure. This is absolutely one of those books! I don't think Mitchell does it deliberately, but he is nonetheless a product of an education system and a publishing industry that encourages a type of book. As a product of the same system, I am of course wired to enjoy the same, so this isn't really a complaint, more an observation. It gets a little close to the “literature as genre” argument, which I'm not fond of!

Next up in second hand bookshop bingo was The Dog Catcher, a book of short stories by Alexei Sayle. I like Sayle's old comedy shows – I mentioned how I lost hours to a youtube search on him a few months back – and have been meaning to check out his writing for a while. I enjoyed most of these stories, although some of them are a bit thin, vituperative mockeries of various sorts that don't measure up (pompous architect, vacuous user woman, TV arseholes). The two big stories - "The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of" and "The Mau Mau Hat" are excellent. The rest are nicely done, by and large, but I could take or leave them.

Finally, I picked up a cheap copy of A Perfect Spy by John le Carre in an appealing classic le Carre paperback from Pan, silver-with-red-lettering and an abstract cover image (in this case, a man and a boy in silhouette). It's got the small pages of tissuey paper and cramped print I associate with the “grown up” books my Dad used to read when I was kid, including most of le Carre's output. Anyway, this is Le Carre in classic form. Perhaps he clung too much to the more spy-ish elements, with the business surrounding Jack Brotherhood (a heavy-handed name, too) and his search for the errant Pym. I found myself skimming the non-Pym sections, impatient to get back to the story of the best pals ever.

About this time I went to New Zealand. I used to read a lot on holiday, and a trip to New Zealand was a particular opportunity to scour the second hand shops of NZ for second hand book finds, and I used to come back with a case half-full of musty old paperbacks. The addition of children to the holiday retinue has changed things somewhat, and time that might once have been used reading is now devoted to entertaining the children. I can bribe the kids by buying them a book (and instil the second hand book habit early) but they just don't have the patience for the kind of examination a good used book shop requires. (It's even worse at the book stalls under Waterloo Bridge.)

So, it took me a a long time to finish the book I took on holiday with me, Sideways in Crime, an anthology of alternative history sf crime stories edited by Lou Anders. This wasn't a great collection. The better stories were:

"Fate & the Firelance" by Stephen Baxter, which had the best alt-history rationale.

"G-Men" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which was generally well-written and interesting with a good central mystery.

"Chicago" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, while not among his best work, had a good solid SF mystery maguffin at it's centre.

"A Murder in Eddsford" by S M Stirling was nicely done, if not terribly mysterious.

"Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel" by Mike Resnick and Eric Flint was funny and sported a great turn from Jimmy Hoffa as a loveable rogue. I enjoyed this one the most, I think.

"The People's Machine" by Tobias S Buckell, which was quite poorly written but had an interestingly probing political slant (and lost points for having aztecs/incas/whatever, as this seemed the running cliche in this vol).

We're now up to about the time I started this blog. I finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson, and wrote written extensively about The Durdane Trilogy by Jack Vance.

Red Men by Matthew De Abitua and Martin Martin's On the Other Side by Mark Wernham are connected by being recent “dark horse” Clarke Award short-listees. Awards are funny beasts, as these are the places for novels that we all know won't win but the judges want to acknowledge anyway. I think these both did a lot with startling imagery and language rather than amazing ideas. They were able to get under the readers skin through the sound and visions they aroused rather than the ideas they explored.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and Doll by Ed McBain, an 87th precinct novel were both picked up for a few pence from an Amnesty International church hall sale we happened across coming down the hill from Blackheath one afternoon. The kids made their selection and sat down and read them by the altar while I spent about an hour picking through the hundreds of book stacked up higgledy piggledy in the pews. I wish I'd gotten more, but at the time I reasoned that I didn't want to be lumbered with a huge to-read list, and that two was plenty for now.

I finished the year with Galactic Medal of Honour by Mack Reynolds. An ignominious end, but I will always remember this coming home from Shoreditch on the night bus at 1am one wintery Tuesday night in December, struggling against the drink and the cold and the noise of the bus, trying to absorb the words. Happy times! And that's the last book I finished in 2009!

I read other stuff, of course. I read the first four vols (out of 11, I think, at present) of The Walking Dead. It works okay on its own level, about that of the current crop of “intelligent” genre TV – Heroes, nBSG, True Blood, Lost and the rest. It treats its subject matter seriously, makes a few rules and applies them rigorously to well-drawn characters to produce hard-hitting and believable dramatic situations.

I sort of enjoyed these on that scenery-chewing TV drama level, but ultimately I find them poor bang to buck value. I know that's a ludicrous way of looking at it, but they cost the same as a paperback and I can read them on the way home from town in the train. I suppose we should be grateful that comics have come down to the price of a paperback – in my day they were relatively quite expensive. These days 9.99 doesn't seem that much in comparison to a few beers, but I'm kind of mean. Even considering you can get them for seven or eight quid on ebay or amazon, I decided it was too pricey for the pleasure I got from it. Eleven volumes would be seventy quid or more, even bearing in mind the availability less than retail offers.

Similar emotions made me drop DC's Blackest Night event from my pull list. I enjoyed the whacked-out Grant Morrison-ness of Final Crisis, but Blackest night is more main-stream supers fare of the DC variety, that I find pretty bland. I've been having much more fun with marvel, in particular the Dark Reign “event”, which has been great fun, as was the Old Man Logan storyline although I thought the end was a bit blah, somehow.

So, that's 2009, or as much of it i can bothered with here: I could talk about the latest chapter of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Dodgem Logic, I guess, but they might make a better post on their own... Anyway, I'll be blogging as I read in 2010, so next year's round-up will hopefully be a bit shorter, you'll be relieved to hear!


  1. Glad you enjoyed Grey! My next, Yarn, should be out maybe later this year!

    Jon Armstrong

  2. Hey, Jon, thanks for dropping by! I enjoyed Grey immensely and got a lot of material for my essay out of it. I'll keep my eyes peeled for Yarn!

    Patrick H


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