Monday, 3 January 2011

My Reading Year 2010

Well, another year gone, another twelve months' worth of dreams sailed down and away to be lost forever in the ineffable oceans of the past. Before establishing a new set of friendly hopes to set about dashing, I'll take a few moments here to consider my year.

Let's get the highlights out of the way for the impatient. My book recommendations of the year are:

Beyond Black
and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The City & The City and Looking for Jake by China Miélville
The Still Point
by Amy Sackville
Elizabeth's Misfits by Arthur Freeman
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Moxy Land by Lauren Beukes

Short stories:
The Red Bride by Samantha Henderson
Bridesicle by Wil Mcintosh
Clod, Pebble by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz

Comics (no links as I haven't written specific posts on these, though maybe I should... perhaps a review...):
Dark Avengers
Batman & Robin

Okay, that's the highlights. For a more detailed look at my year, and a real wallowing in boring crap about me, hit the link!

I'll be frank: 2010 has not been a good year for me, and this has been reflected in my writing. I didn't read as many proper books as I would have liked this year, and I had more than a few disappointments, but I did read a handful of really good books in amongst the usual fillers and disappointments.

The book that struck me most was Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. I read a short piece about the genesis of this novel while I was studying for my MA, and the concept immediately intrigued me: Mantel had gone to a medium show – the sort of thing Doris Stokes used to do, or that Denis Acora makes lots of money from now. Mantel wondered what it must be like to live with the dead forever at the fringe or your attention, demanding attention, desperate to pass on their own half-forgotten messages for those they've left behind.

In many ways it's an old fashioned ghost story: the spirits are in part vengeful and pathetic, not physically dangerous but potentially lethal to the mind and spirit, and their antics hide ghastly secrets long-buried. The classic trappings are, however, brilliantly incorporated in a contemporary world of Fiat Unos, retail parks, shoddy property developments and isolated suburban life. 

It's a brilliant and inspiring novel, and having enjoyed it so much I decided to have a go at Wolf Hall, since my wife had it on hand to read as part of her book group. This was also a brilliant book, far more interesting than I thought it was going to be. I'm interested in history, of course, but I prefer to take it it as non-fiction, but Wolf Hall wasn't really about history, but about living well. It's possible that Mantel sets up Cromwell as a bit too much of a paragon, and I think a great deal of the appeal here is Cromwell's unflappable charisma, but he remains intriguing and her portraits of the familiar characters of the Tudor court point clearly and cleverly to their inner lives.

Between  them, these two books made me think a lot about what good writing is, about the sorts of stories I'm trying to tell and why. It's inspirational in the best possible way, but also intimidating. If that's the level I'm setting myself, then I need to work harder at it and, as my mid forties approach, I wonder if I really have the energy for it any more. Oh well, better to aspire to greatness and fail, I guess, than to succeed at being shit.

Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009, and while I'm not generally one who takes much interest in book awards, I ended up reading a whole bunch of award winners and nominees this year. I had a friend on the judging panel of Clarke Awards, so I thought it would be interesting to read them all and ponder their merits. Having read them all, I think that The City & The City was very much the correct choice. I enjoyed the others, one way or another, but none of them had quite the tenacious unity of Mielville's book. The great achievement in The City & The City was in the consistency and discipline of its setting – the twin cities of Beszel/Ul Qoma are brilliantly imagined, and I'm still not certain if it's supposed to be a psychological phenomenon: I think Mielville keeps it rather brilliantly vague.

I hadn't really read much Mielville before this year. I read Perdido Street Station when it came out and didn't think much of it at the time – it seemed dreary and humourless to me – so I hadn't bothered much with him. The City & The City and, later in the year, the collection Looking For Jake showed me just how wrong my dismissal was! I feel like I'm the last guy on the planet to realise it, but he's a cracking good writer. Not sure when or what I'll read of him next, but he's definitely on my radar now.

Reading the whole short list, though, made me think a bit about what it is a sci fi book award ought to be rewarding. As great as Mielville's book was, I never felt it got under the skin of the characters as much as Beyond Black, for example, which used supernatural content for a similarly metaphorical purpose. The split world of Beszel/Ul Qoma was never reflected in the interior world of the characters: it seemed like a more practical matter of ettiquette and interaction than one a kind of pathology within any character. When Borlu goes to Ul Qoma, it's more of a fish-out-of-water tale than one of exploring a hidden side of his character.

This focus on well-realised settings seemed to be behind several of the choices here, most clearly Retribution Falls, which didn't have much going on outside the modishly steampunk setting. Far North was the closest to being a real novel of character, but it for all its strengths it rather stumbled in the last few chapters and pales in comparison somewhat with its close cousin, The Road.

This line of thinking led me to my review of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, wherein I think I have finally nailed my opinions about what is genre and what is literary fiction. I've long felt, deep in my water, that there is a difference, and I truly hate people who do that whole “literary fiction is just another genre” thing. It's not – there's a difference of scope, approach and ambition that differentiates the two very clearly. If you look at the Clarke Award shortlist, there's no way any of them could pick up a Booker Prize, whatever Kim Stanley Robinson thinks. Reading Wolf Hall after all of those Clarke nominees really brought this home to me: as great as The City & The City is, it lacks that strong commitment to investigate character that typifies literary fiction. Books with SF elements that have been on the Booker shortlist over the years have not, in general, coincided with the SF awards (Cloud Atlas made it onto both the Booker and Clarke shortlists) which makes me think that the two sets of judges are looking for different things.

One book I thought might make it on to the shortlist this years was Moxy Land by Lauren Beukes. This book was probably my SF stand-out of the year, a really penetrasting study of people in crisis. I found it a compelling read, that seemed to ride the fashion of exotic locations in SF with a real commitment and insight  lacking in some of the "gap year SF" I've read this year.

The other prize-winner I read this year was The Still Point by Amy Sackville. This one was on the Orange Prize long-list early in the year, and went on to win the John Rhys Llewellyn prize later in the year. Having been around for the genesis of this one, it provided evidence that the system works: young writers with genuine talent can and do get the recognition they deserve, even if it remains a bit of a crap shoot. I was somewhat disheartened by the response that her John Rhys Llewellyn prize got on the Guardian pages – the literary scene seems so full of resentment and bitterness over essentially nothing. Amy's success, after all, doesn't come at the cost of anyone else, and bearing in mind the number of truly dreadful novels that get published every year I don't think we readers have much cause to complain in this circumstance!

On the subject of bad books, we come to the year's disappointments. This is not so much about the plain bad (I read a few of them this year, too) but books which seemed to promise much but didn't really deliver. Despite a handful of good stories, The Shine anthology of optimistic SF was pretty disappointing (great title, though!) Given the amount of great short fiction being published at the moment I felt I had a right to expect more here. As it was, I felt that almost all the authors had presented better stuff elsewhere. Perhaps there really IS a problem with stories with a positive spin?

The other big disappointment for me was The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. This came with a bunch of hype, but left me unsatisfied. I reviewed it but don't feel I really came to grips with my problems with this book and rather avoided them in my review (in fairness, I was involved in some personal strife at the time, and my mind was elsewhere). On reflection, I would say that it's a great book of a type I don't enjoy too much, namely the flashy, eye-ball kicking sensawunda hard SF. Rajaniemi produced brilliant setting elements, and put them together with stylish prose, but the whole thing felt a bit empty to me. It didn't have the socio-political background of Ken McLeod, or the sweeping drama of Alistair Reynolds, or the sly human insight of Ian M Banks. There was a lot of flash and crash, but in the end it didn't add up to much. Additionally, it becomes clear at the end that this is the first of a series: that's not really what I'm after.

As well as novels, I've been reading short fiction, comics and non-fiction. The non-fiction has been mostly packed into the last few months, although I started the year with the very disappointing Secret History of the World. Recent reads in the same sort of subject area have been of more interest, but this year I didn't find that perfect mix of credulity and rigour that makes a classic Fortean book. I'm about two-thirds through the excellent Oxford Book of Ghosts and I have Goderick-Clarke's highly regarded Black Sun on The Pile, and I'll deal with these in the upcoming months. I probably enjoyed Elizabeth's Misfits the most – tales of beautiful losers from the past!

Comics were also a big part of my reading year, most particularly my re-examination of 2000AD. I finally got around to reading some of the recent reprint volumes from Rebellion, which are terrific and reminded my how excellent 2000AD was in its prime. On the back of these I decided to take another look at 2000AD, to see if time might have settled my own memories and that I might be able to recapture what I loved about it.
Well, that's not how it worked out! I started doing a series of articles, but abandoned them in the end, because I just couldn't face writing another long, exhausting bad review. To summarise my feelings, I feel that Pat Mills is still doing good stuff, and there's some of the newer strips are interesting (notably "Low Life"), but the old war horses (Dredd and Strontium Dog) seemed to have nothing new to say or nowhere to go, and there was a great deal of par, or sub-par filler. At another time in my life, I could tolerate the filler but these days it just frustrates me.

What did I learn? In the words of Tom Waits, “You can never go back, and the answer is no, and wishing for it only makes it bleed.”

In the middle of the year, Mark millar launched CliNT as a supposed successor to 2000AD, but based on the first issue I don't think that Tharg's got much to worry about. The comics were pretty lame, with the exception of Jonathan Ross's vampire/gangsters mash-up, which showed some promise behind the technical problems, but that wasn't enough to get past the toxic features content, which would have embarrassed the crappiest Live at the Apollo comedy hack. Additionally, it has hardly any original content, being mostly reprints.

Outside of that, I followed the Dark Avengers through to their long-expected demise in Siege. This was a somewhat slight end to a story line that I found absolutely compelling. Grant Morrison's Batman arc also came to a head, with Bruce Wayne finally returning and the launch of Batman Inc. I'm sticking with the Morrison-penned Batman titles and the Bendis's Avengers for now, but I took this chance to slim down my comics list. I'm reading Alan Moore's Neonomicon and Charles Burns's Xed Out, and shall comment on them in the fullness of time.

For short fiction, the story that sticks most in my mind is "The Red Bride" by Samantha Henderson. This was a clever story that seemed to give up more each time I read it. "Bridesicle" by Wil Mcintosh and "Clod, Pebble" by Kathe Koja and Carter Schulz were two more excellent stories I read.

I had to give up on Short Fiction Wednesday, because keeping this blog up was becoming too much work. Hell, Short Fiction Wednesday would be a good subject for a blog in itself. Instead, I took part in the short story club over at the Torque Control blog, but reading new short fiction remains a problem. What I might do is have a short fiction Wednesday season, in the late spring or something, and just do it for a months a year, otherwise it's just too much work.

In fact, I've had to think a lot about what I'm doing here over the last twelve months. I started this blog to get me through a block in fiction writing, to clean out some old rubbish that was hanging around in my metaphorical attic and didn't seem to fit any where else. This sort of writing helps me clarify my own thoughts, but as time went on it became clear that not all thoughts are worth clarifying. By the summer time, it had pretty taken over all my writing time completely. Since August, I've pared things back completely to make this, essentially, my reading log. I still see lots of interesting things I'd like to comment on, but time is the enemy. I feel I've got to concentrate on my fiction for now, so this remains a reading blog in the meantime.

In terms of my own writing, I've had a pretty awful year. I wrote a few reviews, I like writing reviews, after all, but with the exception of Super Sad True love Story, I didn't enjoy most of the books I looked at. I resolved once more to be more selective in my reviewing... although I'm sure there's value in the random approach, even if it didn't work out this year.

My new novel completely failed to attract any attention whatsoever, and I haven't been able to sell either of the stories I have in hand at the moment. It's been my ambition to publish at least one story a year, and this year I didn't make it for the first time in several years. Additionally, I struggled to create new fiction in 2010. Between my day job (which has been a total bastard this year) and my numerous other obligations it's been hard to find the time, and besides that I have been somewhat dispirited and depressed by the whole fucking business of life and letters.

Well, what can you do? What's the alternative to carrying on? Tell us Peggy, what's it all about?


  1. Thanks so much, Patrick - and you made me laugh at the "gap year SF" theme. Good luck with your writing and hope 2011 is less fraught.
    - Lauren Beukes

  2. Well, without wishing to appear to be too much of crawler, thank YOU for your terrific book!

    On "gap year SF", it doesn't really apply to you, cos it's your actual home. I suppose a colonial equivalent (I'm a kiwi, NB) would be some kind of Barry McKenzie thing with a bonza bloke or sheila getting into comical scrapes in the ruins of the decadent post-imperial "Mother Land", perhaps Star Wars via Dame Edna Everage...

  3. I thought Beyond Black was great. I've enjoyed earlier Mantels too Fludd and the Giant O'Brien but Wolf Hall is just too big for me at the moment.

    TC&TC on the other hand was a disappointment. I was enthused by the set up and the development of the mystery but felt very let down by the end. I did enjoy Looking for Jake and other shorts of his so I'm still of the opinion that Mieville along with Barker and Gaiman are better in the short form. I'd like one of them to write a cracking good novel but I've yet to see it.

  4. I think/hope that Mielville has a great novel in him yet (a Great Novel, even) but, yeah, TC&TC was not quite it, and from the sounds of it I don't think Kraken is it, either. Gaiman and Barker are obvious way-points on the Road to Mielville, as it were; definite common ground. I think they both share some bad - and perhaps uniquely British - genre habits (which would take me some effort to articulate just at this time) that I can certainly see Mielville falling in to if he's not careful. As a matter of fact, Kraken sounds to me like one of those bad genre habits! (But I withhold judgment as I haven't read it.)

    The bigness of WH put me off, too, and it was a bastard to carry around in my bag, but it just flew by! I'll be keeping my eye out for more Mantel stuff this year - A Place of Greater Safety comes highly recommended.


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