Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Books of the Year

Briefly, the best of last year’s reading gathered together and marshalled into vague categorical connectivity:

Arcane Detectives: Senior, Cultivated Fogies Remaining Defiantly Out of Step with the Times:After You With the Pistol and Something Nasty in the Woodshed by Kyril Bonfiglioli (being the further adventures of art connoisseur and gourmand with a relaxed approach to legality Charlie Mortdecai. Not as funny or affecting as the first, Don’t Point That Thing At Me – a title which gives some idea of its tone – but undeniably amusing, nevertheless).
The Victoria Vanishes by Christopher Fowler (my introduction to the delightful detective duo Arthur Bryant and John May, and the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which is run according to their old-fashioned credo. This one rivals William Heaney’s (aka Graham Joyce’s) Memoirs of a Master Forger as a guide to London pub lore.

Magical Adventures Beyond the Borders of Empire:
The Warlock of the Air and The Land Leviathan by Michael Moorcock (the adventures of Oswald Bastable, Edwardian soldier of the British Empire, as he stumbles into alternate versions of the contemporary – ie 70s – world).
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Historical version of the alien encounter, with Japan as a place of ancient and sometimes dark magic)

Bookish Big Apple Boys Discovering Life and Love Through Literature:
Allen Ginsberg: A Biography by Barry Miles (I turned to this after seeing the film Howl. Full time 60s mythographer Miles portrays Ginsberg in a much more forgiving light than he did Kerouac, or indeed Zappa in his overly judgemental biography of him).
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (beautifully life-affirming novel setting Oscar’s genre dreaming against the brutal, controlling power of dictatorships. Differing values facing off against each other, as they do rather more triumphantly in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control).

Fins Des Siecles and Recurrent Decadent Dreams:
Nights at the Circus and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter (the beginning of my projected re-reading of the works of the divine Angela. Turn of the 19th century journeys across Europe and through the American apocalyptic landscape).
Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand (Hand brings the Goddess to life once more, as seen through the eyes of Rossetti, Swinburne and Burne-Jones, and returning to latter day Camden Town).

The Epic and the Incidental: The Long and Short of Alasdair Gray
Unlikely Stories, Mostly
Ends of Our Tethers (a re-reading of Gray’s superb epic, semi-autobiographical blend of painful realism and equally painful fantasy, recasting Glasgow as a labyrinthine purgatory. Plus short stories, fabular, observational or wryly playful).

Self-reflective Explorations of Genre and its Subjective Worlds:
Yellow Blue Tibia and Splinter by Adam Roberts (Both playing with narrative form and expectation, the former colliding fantasy and realism, and the latter ending with a remarkable, sustained section written in the second person singular future tense).
Silent Land by Graham Joyce (essentially an extended Twilight Zone style story, but with cumulative emotional power which is, in the end, overwhelming. A dissection of the true nature of long-lasting love).

Metropolitan History and Imagination – Mapping the Mental Landscapes of London:
Concrete Island by JG Ballard (Robinson Crusoe by the Westway. A powerful modern myth written by someone very much in control of their material – ignore the scurrilous knives out John Baxter biography).
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (a greatly enjoyable fantasy introducing the occult division of the Met, and featuring the semi-divine embodiments of London’s rivers)
Hackney, That Rose Red Empire by Iain Sinclair (the London mythographer finally zeroes in on his own home territory)
End of the Line edited by Jonathan Oliver (tales of terror on the underground by the likes of Christopher Fowler, Stephen Volk, Ramsay Campbell, Nicholas Royle, and Conrad Williams. Find out what lies beyond those mysterious doors, or lurks in the darkness of the tunnels).

Cultural Crosstalk and Historical Reflections:
State of Emergency by Dominic Sandbrook (Sandbrook moves out of the 60s as examined in his previous volumes Never Had it So Good and White Heat, and looks at the history, politics and culture of the Heath era. Includes much use of Doctor Who, from its overtly politicised Pertwee era, as analogy and example).
Retromania by Simon Reynolds (thought-provoking polemic which remains in two-minds as to whether the obsession with the past which it is highlighting might not actually be so bad after all).
Sinister Resonance by David Toop (Finding music and sound present in the silent forms of literature and art. Includes much about the importance of the element of sound from unidentified sources in supernatural fiction)

Marking Mervyn Peake’s Centenary Year:
Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (going beyond Gormenghast and into the frightening world of modernity)
Titus Awakes by Maeve Gilmore (Mervyn’s wife Maeve takes a few of his fragmentary pages and notes and extends them into what is very much her own story)
A Child of Bliss by Sebastian Peake (Mervyn and Maeve’s eldest son recollects his parents and his own childhood)
Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold by Malcolm Yorke (biography from a writer who has also written much about Neo-Romantic British artists)
Vast Alchemies: The Life and Works of Mervyn Peake by G Peter Winnington (biography from the editor of Peake Studies, now considered the definitive work by the Peake family and by Michael Moorcock, although it lost out at the time of first publication to Yorke’s work, and wasn’t allowed to include illustrations or quotations).

Demonstrating that Great Children’s Literature is Simply Great Literature:
Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve (the four volumes of Reeve’s richly imagined and characterised tales of ambulatory cities in a post-apocalyptic world)
Clay by David Almond (adolescence, religious faith, bullying, local mythology and, as always, the primacy of the imagination in this fable, simply told but with undercurrents of great complexity)
Black Jack by Leon Garfield (another of Garfield’s beautifully told gothic tales of children in 18th century England)
The Dark Flight Down by Marcus Sedgwick (more gothic atmospheres, set in a gloomy city of indeterminate geographical and historical location, and with our hero and heroine from The Book of Dead Days finding their way through the palace of a decadent Emperor seeking immortality)
Gifts by Ursula le Guin (a variant on the magical worlds of Earthsea from one of the finest SF and fantasy writers for readers of any age)

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