Thursday, 19 December 2013

Books of the Year 2013

I started the year with a real treat, a new novel by one of my favourite writers, James Blaylock. The Aylesford Skull saw the return of RL Stevensonian hero Professor St Ives and his entourage, and was a wonderfully colourful, adventure through a dark Dickensian London, with flourishes of supernatural and steampunk invention.
Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand was the follow up to her novel Generation Loss, and followed the further chaotic investigations of punk art photographer Cass Neary. This time she travels to Finland and Iceland and becomes entangled with Nordic black metal and Odinist cults, and learns about the violent mythic forebear of Santa Claus. Hand’s usual concerns (the mythic manifesting in the modern world and the search for the artistic muse) are seamlessly incorporated into the detective story mode. Errantry, her latest short story collection, was also fine, and included a great fairy story set in Cornwall, which in some respects anticipated another modern adult fairy story which I read later in the year (and will come to in due course). I got up to date with the Christopher Fowler’s aging (but young at heart) detectives Bryant and May, this time decrypting the Invisible Code. It was good to make their acquaintance again.

After last year’s epic, slightly exhausting Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, I returned to the book (or trilogy of novels) which first introduced me to Samuel Delany all those years ago when I was but a callow teenager, The Fall of the Towers. It was a real pleasure to revisit its jewelled cities and landscapes, traditional pulp SF worldbuilding shot through with dazzling poetic language. Boneland by Alan Garner was a difficult non-sequel to his first two children’s novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In bringing the lonely and broken Colin, now an astronomer working at Jodrell Bank, towards some kind of healing, and reconciliation with the wounds of time, Garner seems to be moving towards a resolution in his own work. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson returned to his utopian and dystopian concerns, contrasting a solar system of diverse diasporic human inhabitants, reshaped mentally and physically by their new environments, with an Earth still struggling with environmental degradation and political oppression and economic division. The level of invention here is quite phenomenal. Robinson just seems to go from strength to strength, and has now firmly established himself in the canon of SF greats.

Having gone through a bit of a film noir phase during the year, I returned to the source and read Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. A superb novel, with a conclusion in which Marlowe’s hardboiled persona is subject to an existential crisis, his faith in the world restored by a male angel. It always takes a certain mental adjustment to get used to him getting out his pipe and lighting it, though. Can’t imagine Bogart (or indeed Dick Powell) doing that. Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, the conclusion of his Ambergris sequence, applied a Chandleresque hardboiled scenario to the dark urban fantasy setting of his by now post-invasion city of the grotesque and bizarre. Tough-minded and drawing parallels with contemporary politics, it both brought things full circle and left them full of suggestive ambiguity. As a whole, these stories and novels are a major landmark of modern fantasy. KJ Bishop’s the Etched City is another brilliant urban fantasy of recent times, published in 2003, but she has produced little in the intervening years. It was particularly pleasing to come across a new collection a decade later, then. That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote continued in the Decadent vein of the novel, with a story set in the same city, but also revealed a playful, reflexive Borgesian side (also present in some of Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories). A most welcome return, hopefully presaging more in the offing.

The Chaos Walking Trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters and Men) by Patrick Ness, a science fiction story set on a recently colonised planet, was another indication that some of the best writing can be discovered on the shelves marked ‘young adult’, or whatever the current marketing terminology is. Such distinctions become entirely irrelevant when dealing with writing of such narrative verve, linguistic and typographical invention (the main narrator speaks with his own idiosyncratic and ungrammatical voice, and we get to hear and see the scrawled, circular thoughts of dogs and horses) and moral force. The first novel ended on such an agonising cliff-hangar that I found myself frantically dashing around trying to immediately lay my hands on a copy of the follow up. Philip Reeve is another fine ‘children’s’ writer, whose Mortal Engines novels have a similar imaginative brio and moral complexity. He also lives down in these parts, and I finally got around to reading his hugely entertaining long short story (a novella/novelette?) The Exeter Riddles. Connected with a theatrical game played in the city a couple of years back, Reeve brings history to life in a literal way, rifts in time causing periods from the city’s past to leak into the present, resulting in awkward and potentially catastrophic encounters. Reeve also animates the city’s statues. Well, the original story, game and spectacular conclusion did coincide with the annual animation festival. the equestrian statue of General Redvers Buller thundering to our young hero’s aid, inevitable traffic cone lodged onto his plumed hat. Reeve incorporates neglected aspects of Exeter’s history and makes them vividly and entertainingly present to young imaginations (and slightly older ones too).

That other fairy story I mentioned earlier was Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce, a clever title which alludes to the dismissive use of the phrase to indicate an implausible lie or fantasy. It also points to the fact that the fairy tale itself is in some ways a narrative side-issue. Whilst the disappearance of a young woman in a stretch of ancient woodland, and her subsequent return many years later, after she’d long been presumed dead, is at the core of the story, the reactions of family, lovers and friends, and their attempts to cope with their loss and sudden restitution, is the heart of the matter. Joyce uses fantasy and the supernatural to examine human nature, and the holy mystery of human relationships and communities. He always has great compassion and understanding for his characters. We really care for them, and so does he, and so he treats them with kindness and respect. Joyce’s latest novel, The Year of the Ladybird, could be subtitled Some Kind of Ghost Story. He seems to set himself the challenge of setting a ghost story on the East Coast, MR James territory, but in the most unchilling of environments: a holiday resort in the middle of one of the hottest summers in living memory, 1976. Again, the ghosts are, like the fairies in the previous novel, something of a side-issue (whilst at the same time being absolutely key to the resolution). This is a classic coming of age tale, with the changes the young protagonist goes through also reflected in the political disruptions shaking the country (in particular the rise of the far right) and in the sense that the holiday camp, variety club world in which he is an unlikely participant is a faded remnant of a post-war Britain which is about to fade away for good. It is a ghost town, then. The plague of ladybirds which hits the coast with particular density provides a multivalent metaphor: the red of blood, sexual awakening, danger and transience. These two fine, subtle and moving novels led me back to one of Joyce’s earlier books, Smoking Poppy. It’s another tale of a lost daughter, or rather of the father who goes out to Thailand to fetch her when he discovers that she’s been arrested for drug smuggling, and ends up following the trail into the heart of the jungle. For a novel concerned tangentially with the opium trade and the vicious bandits who control its source, it’s surprisingly funny. Again, the ostensible subject matter is a backdrop for a story whose main concern is with family and friendship, and the reawakening of a man’s soul.

Fair Play is a short novel by Tove Jansson, told in a series of short chapters detailing small and seemingly trivial incidents in the lives of two women, a writer and artist, who live together. But these moments from a lifetime spent together illustrate the compromises and accommodations necessary to sustain such sustained intimacy. It’s really a portrait of Jansson’s own life with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä refracted through the distancing lens of fiction.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get round to reading We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, given its acknowledged status as a founding work of literary science fiction, and a huge influence on Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps I thought it might be a bit forbidding and austere. Nothing could be further from the truth. The central message that the imagination is the key to resisting conformist tyranny is embodied in the intoxicating, poetic language. There is a great deal of SF imagery here, too, from the glass city to the pioneering rocket launch and disturbing wheeled cyborgs. Although it has an essentially pessimistic outlook, it avoids the crushing despair of 1984, and somehow ends up holding out some hope for a utopian future on a more human scale.

A Disaffection by James Kelman is a similar mix of pessimism and humour. We get very close up to the Glaswegian stream of consciousness swirling through the head of the disaffected schoolteacher Patrick Doyle. In part an anatomy of melancholy and frustration, it is, in its perfectly rendered vernacular, also a portrait of a particular place and the state of mind which attaches to it. Capable, along with its protagonist, of moments of great philosophical acuity, it is also endlessly circuitous, conveying the authentic sense of the drift of a distracted and troubled mind. It’s also bloody funny. Seasons in the Sun by Dominic Sandbrook finished his grand post-war history, detailing the final collapse of the post-war settlement, and offering an agonising what-if moment, when Callaghan decided to wait out the winter before calling an election in 1979. Sandbrook offered his usual accessible and hugely enjoyable composite portrait of the times, incorporating politics, pop, sport, TV to give a real sense of the period as people experienced it. The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe was the perfect novel to follow up this history. Beautifully characterised, it offered a view of the times from the Midlands, and from both sides of the generational and class divide. It also displayed an in-depth knowledge of and sympathy for the music of the time (Henry Cow, Yes AND The Clash). My Revolution by Hari Kunzru was also a good accompanying novel, a portrayal of the radical politics of the period, and its development into revolutionary actions, told from the retrospective point of view of someone who’d tried to put them behind him, only to have old ghosts return to haunt him.

A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock was a compelling study of five artists who met each other at the Slade School of Art in the pre-First World War period, and whose lives were indelibly changed by the conflict. Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson all went to the front and portrayed their experiences there in their own individual fashion. Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington remained in Britain, but in many ways it is their tempestuous, eternally postponed affair which is at the heart of the book, giving it a tragic cast of a more individual nature. The book formed the basis of a fine exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this year, also put together by Haycock. Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris looks at British art in the inter-war years, and includes more about Paul Nash. It also widens the perspective by including writers, critics, architects and poets into its overview of the peculiarly British amalgamation of modernism with a neo-romantic or coolly classical outlook.

I read quite a bit by and about Kafka this year (causing much amusement in some quarters). David Zane Mairowitz’s Kafka for Beginners volume was a fine introduction, with some brilliant illustrations by Robert Crumb. The biography by Nicholas Murray outlined his life, work and loves with admirable clarity. I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories, and particularly enjoyed the animal fables. The Burrow struck a particular chord, a brilliantly sustained study of paranoia and the retreat into the inner recesses of the self. I also read America, whose episodic nature and picaresque narrative made it curiously expansive for a Kafka novel. The old claustrophobia and painful establishment of the relationships of power and status is present in the maze like ship’s corridors and cabins at the beginning and in the inn where Karl works as a lift attendant, however, and in his own descent through the social strata.

I also read Poe: A Life Cut Short, Peter Ackroyd brusque biography, whose title seems to refer to the book’s brevity as much as the subject’s premature end. Still, this conciseness may be a blessing. It tells you enough about Poe to make you realise you wouldn’t really want to spend too much time in his company, although Ackroyd goes out of his way to be accomodating and sympathetic (as far as this is possible). It led to my reading a number of his short stories and poems, however, with The Pit and the Pendulum and Ulalume making a particular impression. In An Impersonation of Angels, Frederick Brown casts a disdainful and supercilious eye on the life of Jean Cocteau, finding cause to denigrate him at every turn. With his dislike of his subject so evident and undisguised, it’s something of a mystery as to why he chose to write about him in the first place.

Head-On and Repossessed by Julian Cope are two hugely entertaining and frequently insightful autobiographical reminiscences of his time in Liverpool, leading up to stardom with The Teardrop Explodes and subsequent wayward endeavours. Veering between self-deprecation and unabashed self-aggrandisement, but always with a wry sense of his own self-created persona, these are some of the best and most honest of rock memoirs. Copendium, meanwhile, gathers some of Cope’s reviews of obscure or neglected albums, along with some more generic charts along the lines of the Krautrock and Japrock Samplers. These are very personal responses, written in an infectiously enthusiastic style, but this very lack of distance often means that he gets to the heart of the music in question. I was particularly glad to see him including a wild celebration of The Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun, whose magic he nails totally. Hope and Glory by Stuart Maconie, a big Julian Cope fan, finds him visiting various sites associated with key social and historical events from each decade in the twentieth century. It’s a conceit which links change with place, and thus celebrates the cultural and geographical diversity of the country. It also results in a journey which is in part a reflection of the changes effected on particular localities over the course of the turbulent century, as well as on certain characteristics which have remained unchanged. The way that these histories are recorded, or in some cases forgotten, also reflects on what the British value of their cultural heritage – a frequently vexatious question. Maconie isn’t afraid to state his own opinions, and offers some forthright criticisms of certain aspects of modern society and politics. It’s an engaged book, sometimes even angry, but also filled with wit, amusing anecdotes and questing curiosity. For me, it was his best yet.

I’m currently half way through The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, in which he walks some of the old paths of Britain (and beyond), starting on the old chalk trails of the Icknield Way, and gathering observations and unearthed tales and histories along the way. He’s an engaging walking companion. I’m also half way through Zona by Geoff Dyer, a rather odd conceit for a book. He retells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Particular scenes or images send him off into frequent and lengthily discursive asides, cast as footnotes which sometimes swamp the supposedly primary text. These vary in the degree of their tangentiality. It all amounts to a highly personal overview of a film which evidently made a great impact on Dyer (even if he can be a little sardonic in the face of its high seriousness). This is one film as filtered through the consciousness of one particular viewer, with all his personal history brought to bear upon it. It makes you wonder what your particular take on your own favourite film would be – what tributaries and side alleys such a contemplative approach might take.

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