Thursday, 31 December 2009

Books of 2009

Strange, mutable cities were a feature in several of the books which I read this year. Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek further detailed the turbulent culture and history of the city of Ambergris, with its fungal underground shadow, as seen through the lens of the shattered autobiography of Janice Shriek; and in the omnibus edition of M.John Harrison’s Viriconium books, taking me back to the old haunts of the Bistro Californium and the Proton Way, from relatively crude beginnings in The Pastel City to the fin de siecle blend of Melnibone and Manchester in In Viriconium. The last story in Viriconium Knights, A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, was later utterly transformed by the simple exchange of the word Viriconium with London - an equally uncertain locale to escape to. Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry depicts with lightly mordant wit an unchanging city state pacing out an endless dance of art and seduction. Only the Turk beyond the gate, the possibility (swiftly crushed) of scientific progress and the ancestral hunt (of dinosaurs) threaten the airy dream of this eternal city. There was the Soho engulfed by meteorological catastrophe, briefly turned into a seedy Venice, in Chris Petit’s Robinson; the occult monoliths of San Francisco in Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, his urban take on Lovecraftian horror with a hefty dash of autobiography; and the call to revolution in the early twentieth century streets of Prague in Gustav Meyrinck’s Walpurgisnacht, the mob’s violent progress driven on by the beat of a drum fashioned from human skin.

Michael Chabon was the big discovery of the year (thanks Neil) and I read most of his novels. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay instantly became a favourite, with characters who you genuinely cared for, and a narrative sweep which was epic without becoming ragged. It was a novel which argued for the need for certain varieties of escapism, and thus for imaginative fiction in general. Also by Chabon, The Final Solution was a moving book about the aged Sherlock Holmes (never directly named as such) confronting the double meaning contained within the title; Gentlemen of the Road was an episodic swashbuckler of lyrical dash; Summerlands a rather more disjointed children’s book (maybe I just don’t relate to baseball, which is central to the story); Wonder Boys was a farce in which a writer is unable to stop the unravelling of his life (and the unstoppable growth of his novel) by being short and to the point and telling the truth; and Werewolves in Their Youth was a collection of short stories which included a tale by ‘August van Dorn’, the Lovecraftian horror writer referred to in Wonder Boys. This story, In the Black Mill, demonstrates how adept Chabon is at hopping between genres (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished at the end of last year, is science fiction, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t).

I also hugely enjoyed a couple of novels by Graham Joyce (thanks again, Neil), The Facts of Life and The Limits of Enchantment, which covered the post war years and the 60s in the midlands, both through the experience of women attached to both old ways and new. I also read his short stories collected in Black Dust, evocations of unforgiving landscapes and the people who live in them. Anno Dracula by Kim Newman was hugely enjoyable (thanks etc.) and managed to reference pretty much every literary and cinematic vampire ever created (certainly all the ones I know). The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was similarly enjoyable, a coming of age story via the wisdom of the dead. Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y failed to flesh out its abstract mental world, and seemed worryingly attached to magical thinking (such as homeopathy) which led it perhaps unsurprisingly to a denouement in Totnes.

The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (not a slip of the keyboard, I assure you) reminded me what a brilliant short story writer Gene Wolfe is, as did his Forlesen, a quietly devastating piece of Kafka-esque nightmare. The real thing, Kafka’s The Castle, proved to be a bit of a long haul if I’m perfectly honest. I could see why it was such a masterpiece, but the endless bureaucratic twisting and turning, and the wheedling self-justifications of the protagonist made it all rather wearisome (perhaps an intentional effect). Of course, it never ends either (and maybe never could). Two novels by Charles Williams, The War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps, brought occult struggles between good and evil into contemporary (1930s) England. Williams, a Christian of idiosyncratic stripe, really makes us feel that the soul is at stake here. Another writer with strong religious views (like Gene Wolfe, a Catholic), GK Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades found him in jovial tall tale telling mood. A similar delight in the absurdity of the English and in linguistic play could be found in Kyril Bonfiglioli’s sixties murder romp ‘Don’t Point that Thing at Me’, the first in his delightful Mortdecai trilogy.

Two children’s novels retained all of their old charms; Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, both with magical scenes of winter journeys (the skate along the river to Ely in the latter is conjured up beautifully). David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman inevitably failed to match the intensity of his extraordinary A Voyage to Arcturus, but it was an occasionally atmospheric tale of ‘ghost’ lives left unlived. More ghost stories came in the shape of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, in which the spectre was of a past which refused to give way as much as anything; the Everyman Book of Ghost Stories, which provided Halloween chills (including W. F. Harvey’s tale of a crawling hand, The Beast With Five Fingers, which seemed more familiar from the Christopher Lee episode of Amicus’ Dr Terror’s House of Horrors than the Peter Lorre film of the same name); and, for Christmas, Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror.

Robert Holdstock’s Avilion was a fine return to the world of Mythago Wood and, alas, his valedictory novel. Elizabeth Hand’s Saffron and Brimstone was a fine collection of short stories. A very long story, which I’ve just embarked upon, is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which may take some time, but which at the very least will help develop some upper arm strength. I can feel myself beginning to be drawn in. My end of year treat comes in the form of a re-reading of James Blaylock’s Homunculus, his ‘steampunk’ novel set in a richly imagined Victorian London peopled with his usual group of whimsically inclined friends and their colourfully villainous (and often rather pitiful) foes. I look forward to reading his new novel, The Knights of the Cornerstone, next year.

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