books 2020

    The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick (Books 2020, 30)

    The first of my Christmas books, so I could count it as next year’s; but since I had finished it by the day after Boxing Day, it definitely belongs to this year. And it also brings me to a nice round 30 books for the year.

    A writer is isolated in a lonely alpine chalet to write about a book he hates. Which very quickly turns out to be Frankenstein. He is visited by – well, that would be telling, but just let’s say that the novel he’s writing about and its creator are very significant.

    It’s written – at least at first – as if it was the writer writing to his publisher, though that conceit soon disappears. There are various details around the way it’s printed, that look as if they should be significant, but they aren’t really.

    It’s good. Check it out.

    Xstabeth by David Keenan (Books 2020, 29)

    Following on from number 27, then, we have David Keenan’s latest novel. Again we’re in a kind of magic-realist setting, without any obvious magic. In St Petersburg a young woman lives with her father, who is a failed or fading musician. The daughter – who is the viewpoint character – starts a relationship with her father’s friend, and gets pregnant. She keeps all of this from her father.

    Her father, meanwhile, puts on a show at which he performs some seemingly-otherworldly music. He starts to believe that it was actually created by some sort of mystical entity called Xstabeth.

    For reasons that escape me at the moment they go to St Andrews,1 where they get involved with a professional golfer. The ‘tenuous, ambiguous, confusing event’ that I referred to in the earlier note happens from this side too, but you’d only notice it if you’d read The Towers The Fields The Transmitters.

    The novel is presented as if it were an academic work about a novel calle Xstabeth, by someone called ‘David Keenan,’ who killed himself by jumping from a tower in St Andrews. So there are cod-academic sections or extracts between the chapters.

    It’s all very meta, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I totally understood it. The strangest thing about it, in some ways, is the use of punctuation. Almost the only punctuation used is the full stop. But that doesn’t just mean he’s avoided using commas and semicolons, and constructed appropriately short sentences. It reads as if he wrote it with conventional punctuation around dialogue and so on, and then replaced every other mark with the full stop.

    For example, consider this:

    This is singular. He said. This is music that cannot be repeated. This is music that can never be toured. This is music that can never be applauded. I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted Applause. Awkward applause. Uncomprehending applause. But still. Applause. What is the sound of one audience member clapping. I asked him. He laughed. Yes. He said. Yes. Yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music. He said.

    A more conventional way to punctuate that and lay it out, might be:

    ‘This is singular,’ he said. ‘This is music that cannot be repeated; this is music that can never be toured; this is music that can never be applauded.’

    I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted applause; awkward applause; uncomprehending applause; but still: applause.

    ‘What is the sound of one audience member clapping?’ I asked him.

    He laughed. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes, yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music,’ he said.

    There are, of course, other ways you could present it. As an experimental way of presenting text, it’s interesting enough. I found it intruded, in that I constantly noticed it; but not so much as to be annoying. Though there were places where it was slightly confusing. I paid particular attention to it because we recently discussed ways to present dialogue on my course.

    1. Still needs an apostrophe. ↩︎

    The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Books 2020, 28)

    Read this for the young adult (YA) section of the Genre module on my course. It’s a powerful story inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

    In an unnamed US city, a teenaged girl is the only witness to her friend being murdered by a police officer. She has to find her way through the complexities that follow, including family, school, friendships, the law, and the streets of the neighbourhood she grew up in.

    It’s a tough read at times, as is it should be. But it’s also very funny in places. Well worth checking out.

    The Towers The Fields The Transmitters by David Keenan (Books 2020, 27)

    Strange one, this. I read Keenan’s This is Memorial Device a couple of years ago, so when I saw a new one by him listed on my local bookshop’s ‘forthcoming’ page, I had a look.

    That book was Xstabeth, and more on it in a few posts' time. It hadn’t yet been released at the time, but there was a special offer from the publishers: upload proof that you had preordered it (such as the receipt from your local bookshop) and you’d get a free novella-length ebook prequel: The Towers The Fields The Transmitters.1

    So I did all that, and here we are.

    I’ll note right away that, having read both, they seem to be connected only by location and one tenuous, ambiguous, confusing event.

    In fact those terms apply throughout this book. It’s kind of a magical realism piece, set mostly in St Andrews.2 A businessman visits the town to audit the books of a military facility, and starts trying to find his missing daughter. Why does he think she might be in St Andrews? That is never explained. Nor does it need to be.

    Time goes weird, with second-world-war bombers appearing in the skies. Or on the phone, at least.

    The more I try to write about this, the more it feels like a hallucination I had a few weeks ago. Very strange. Worth reading.

    1. That title needs some commas, I can’t help but think. But that’s the way it’s given, so [sic], I guess. ↩︎

    2. Which town needs an apostrophe, it seems to me, but doesn’t have one according to Wikipedia, so [sic]) I guess. ↩︎

    Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72 by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2020, 26)

    I thought it might be interesting, in this year of a US presidential election, to reread this account of a different reelection campaign of a terrible president.

    In this one, of course, the president – Nixon – was successfully reelected. And it was only in his second term that he was impeached – or nearly so. He resigned first, and Ford, his veep, now president, pardoned him. It wouldn’t surprise me if Trump and Pence try the same sort of thing in the next couple of months.

    This book doesn’t get as far as Nixon’s resignation. Thompson followed the Democratic campaign, and then George McGovern’s campaign once he got the nomination, as part of the press pack. He was National Affairs Editor for Rolling Stone at the time. A title and role that he created.

    So this is essentially a fix-up of his columns, with some edits, and the odd footnote adding information that wasn’t available at the time. It’s classic HST, of course, with not quite as many illegal drugs as in some of his works.

    The most intriguing thing in the whole book for me was this quote from p189:

    For almost a year now, he [Pat Cadell] has been George McGovern’s official numbers wizard. Cadell and his Cambridge Research Associates have been working the streets and suburban neighborhoods in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts for McGovern, then coming back to headquarters on election nite [sic] and calling the results almost down to the percentage point…

    Emphasis mine, ellipsis his. I’m just struck by the name of the organisation, and the fact that they’re doing a not dissimilar thing to Cambridge Analytica – in terms of analysis, if not manipulation – in a pre-computer age. There doesn’t seem to be any connections between the two organisations.

    On the very next page we have this:

    Even reading and watching all the news, there is no way to know the truth – except to be there.

    Which resonates profoundly in today’s ‘fake news’ world.

    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Books 2020, 25)

    Read this for my course. It’s very good, unsurprisingly. Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing (Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle notwithstanding) It has a striking stylistic tic – if that’s the right word – in the way she refers to Thomas Cromwell. It’s always ‘he said,’ or ‘he did such-and-such’; very occasionally, for clarity, ‘he, Cromwell…’ But never just, ‘Cromwell said…’

    Not a big deal, but in a work of this size, it stands out. It feels significant. And it is; ‘tic’ is the wrong word for something so definite, so chosen. Mantel has said that she wanted the viewpoint to be ‘over Cromwell’s shoulder.’ So ‘he’, rather than ‘Cromwell.’

    One of the most subtle things about it as how Cromwell switches from just being an advisor to the king to rounding up certain priests, and I don’t really understand how it happened. It’s a masterpiece of characterisation.

    Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Books 2020, 24)

    I wasn’t quite sure about this at first. I know it won awards and all that. It was assigned for the ‘Genre’ module of my Creative Writing masters,1 but it didn’t immediately grab me.

    But I came round to it. It’s set in the very far future, because there are examples of technology that is old, but people don’t understand it. Reminiscent of Viriconium or Against A Dark Background in that way. And ‘Home is the pink one’ – star – suggests that Sol has got very old. Like, billions of years older than now. Which feels wrong, because humans should have changed a lot more in that time.

    The titular character is the first of her people to leave Earth (we assume it’s Earth, anyway) to go to Oomza University, which appears to be a whole planet that’s a university, and takes people from many different species and civilisations.

    Things happen on the way, as you might expect. It’s good, and I’m keen to read the sequels.

    1. As such it’s an odd choice: for the crime and historical fiction we got long novels, and even for YA it’s a full-length novel. But for SF: a novella. ↩︎

    The Secret Place by Tana French (Books 2020, 23)

    Crime fiction set in Dublin. In a posh boarding school, specifically, which causes it to have elements of young adult (YA) fiction. We studied it for the ‘Genre’ module of my MA course. It also dips into magic realism, so it’s particularly appropriate for that module.

    I hadn’t read any of French’s books before. This is volume five in a series about the Dublin Murder Squad, but they’re only loosely linked. I enjoyed it a lot, and wouldn’t mind reading more.

    She has a great way with colour imagery, and compelling characters.

    Orlando by Virginia Woolf (Books 2020, 22)

    This is a book about history, biography, gender – and writing.

    It’s presented as a biography of the titular character, who starts as the son of a noble family. It’s written for, and partly based an the life of, Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West.

    Famously, Orlando’s gender (or biological sex) changes partway through the novel. She spends the latter part of it as a woman. She also lives for four or five hundred years – and presumably is living still. She’s barely got started by the end of the book.1

    The interesting thing about the time difference is that he/she doesn’t experience the passage of hundreds of years, as far as we are shown. It’s like time passes at a different rate for her. She reaches the age of around 30, but the world has moved on through ages around her.

    I enjoyed this greatly, and as I said a while back, it sparked some ideas and made me think of associations with Iain Banks. Which can’t be bad.

    1. Indeed she/he turns up in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, switching back and forth seemingly at random. ↩︎

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Books 2020, 21)

    This short novel feels surprisingly modern. Indeed, maybe it’s modernist. It was written in the fifties, and is set in the thirties. The modern part is mainly the way it plays with time. Starting at a point and then flashing back is simple enough, but then we get various flashforwards and explanations of what’s going to happen to the various characters. It’s all very elegantly done, with the changes smoothly integrated, so they don’t feel like jumps at all.

    Jean Brodie is a teacher, and kind of an educational reformer, in that she thinks her students should be taught a broad array of things, and should learn about the world, rather than just follow a narrow, fixed curriculum. She would never “teach to the test” – which phrase is never used, but Brodie would be strongly against that modern malaise.

    But she very much plays favourites. Her “set” get all her attention (outside of school as well as in it), and all the other pupils – those who have no chance of becoming “la crème de la crème” – are ignored. She is, ultimately, exceedingly self-centred.

    Notoriously, she also has exceedingly dodgy – or maybe just deeply naive – political views. Here is Sandy, the main viewpoint character, when Brodie has shown the class a picture of Mussolini and his fascisti:

    They were dark as anything and all marching in the straightest of files, with their hands raised at the same angle, while Mussolini stood on a platform like a gym teacher or a Guides mistress and watched them. Mussolini had put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets. It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching along. That was all right, but it seemed, too, that Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. Perhaps the Guides were too much a rival fascisti, and Miss Brodie could not bear it.

    It gets worse, though, when she:

    was going abroad, not to Italy this year but to Germany, where Hitler was become Chancellor, a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini; the German brownshirts, she said, were exactly the same as the Italian black, only more reliable.

    She sees the error of her ways, though, after a fashion:

    After the war Miss Brodie admitted to Sandy, as they sat in the Braid Hills Hotel, “Hitler was rather naughty."

    She has some more positive views, though:

    “We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French. We are Europeans.”


    But my favourite quotes involve religion:

    The Lloyds were Catholics and so were made to have a lot of children by force.

    And getting back to those Fascisti:

    By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie.

    It’s a sad story, in the end. Worth reading, though.

    Annabel Scheme and the Adventure of the New Golden Gate by Robin Sloan (Books 2020, 20)

    My 2020 reading reaches 20, which is pleasing. And with another novella, which is something of a theme.

    I read Sloan’s Sourdough a couple of years back, and only thought it was OK, but I still get his newsletter, which is where I learned about this. It was originally serialised in a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper,1 and published via an interesting experiment with online writing, and a new software package for publishing books on the web.

    That said, I read it on my Kindle.

    It’s good. Lots of fun, even if you don’t know the Bay Area. A detective and her assistant try to stop multiple timelines being crashed together. But it starts with burritos. What’s not to like?

    One unusual thing is that the assistant, who is also the narrator (a veritable Doyle, though not as useful) never has any quoted speech. You’ll get an exchange like this:

    I wondered if Scheme had worked up any theories.

    “Sure. Most likely explanation is, Stella Pajunas was never real to start with. Ectoplasmic projection. Mass hallucination, maybe.”

    Scheme was theorizing that the ABCD—really, the whole Bay Area—had been managed for ten years by a mass hallucination?

    “It would explain some things, wouldn’t it?

    A piece of narration is answered by the other character. The implication is that the narrator said it. I don’t recall ever seeing this in fiction, but it is used in some interviews. It used to be the norm in the NME back when I read it. In interviews, I much prefer that technique to the purely transcriptional approach, which can look like a play script at times. As to using it in fiction, it works well enough here, in such a short work, but I think it would get wearing at greater length.

    Anyway, you can read it for free, so you might as well.

    1. Or two, as it turns out. ↩︎

    The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison (Books 2020, 19)

    I read about this in a article about the use of Jack the Ripper in fiction. It’s a story set in Victorian times, about two men living Baker Street in London; one a detective, the other a doctor.

    But the detective is an angel, called Crow; and the doctor is JH Doyle, recently back from Afghanistan, where he was injured in an encounter with one of the Fallen. And someone is murdering women in Whitechapel.

    In other words, it’s an interesting riff on the Sherlock Holmes stories. The hunt for the Ripper is spread through the whole book, while some of the well-known cases have versions interspersed. The Sign of the Four appears, Baskerville Hall is visited. When someone dies and the only visible wound is twin puncture marks, was it a snake, as in ‘The Speckled Band,’ or a vampire?

    Because most of the creatures of myth and legend exist in this London, often with an unusual twist. James Moriarty can’t enter your home unless you invite him. But werewolves are respected landlords.

    Vampires can enter public buildings, of course: “Any building with an angel.” Angels only have consciousness and names – names are important – if they are attached to a public building. Churches and synagogues have their angels, obviously; but so too do pubs, hotels, and stations. The angel of King’s Cross makes an appearance.

    But not the angel I was half expecting. The Angel, Islington is a pub,1 and we’d have to refer to its angel as ‘The Angel of the Angel, Islington,’ which would be weird and unwieldy.

    Speaking of language, the Victorianism is handled pretty well, I think, but the author is American, and it shows where a few terms creep in. ‘Sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’; ‘baseboard’ instead of ‘skirting board.’ ‘Row houses’ where we would say ‘terraced houses.’ ‘Sundown.’ ‘Paper folded into fourths’; a British writer would say ‘quarters.’

    These are mildly jarring, but not that important. Certainly not enough to detract from the fun of the story overall.

    1. Sadly now a Wetherspoons. #NeverSpoons↩︎

    Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (Books 2020, 18)

    The second-last Culture book, and a long-delayed return to Mr Banks. This book is ten years old, and I didn’t write about it in 2010. Not sure why, but I didn’t post much in 2010.

    Anyway, this is pure dead brilliant. Even better than I remembered – and I, as is common, remembered surprisingly little.

    But you don’t need me to tell you about it. It’s a Culture book. Just read the damn thing.

    The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire by Bryan Talbot (Books 2020, 16 & 17)

    I suppose I could have counted this as four books, since the first part is in three volumes. A reread of a great set of graphic novels about the timestream-jumping psychic adventurer, and (then) his offspring.

    Well worth checking out if you haven’t, and if the above description sounds like your sort of thing.

    This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Books 2020, 15)

    This has won all the awards, and rightly so. Or not quite all: it’s a finalist for the Hugo novella award. At the time of writing, we don’t know whether or not it will win.

    Unless I’ve travelled downthread and found out.

    It’s a novella, which may be the perfect length of story, in some sense. It’s a love story across time and space and multiple parallel existences… It’s pure dead brilliant.

    The actual nature of the war, of the sides, even of the protagonists, Red and Blue, is ambiguous at best. But that doesn’t matter because the writing is so exquisite.

    The Wikipedia article describes it as an epistolary novel. That’s only partly true, and not just because it’s a novella. The letters are there, and are fundamental, but I feel that to be truly ‘epistolary,’ the whole story must be told in letters, and that is not the case here. But that doesn’t matter.

    One minor oddity I alluded to above: The future is referred to as ‘downthread’ and the past ‘upthread.’ That seems the wrong way round to me, but maybe it reflects the fact that, normally, we can’t stop sliding down into the future.

    Go. Get. Read. VVG. They’re adapting it for TV. I can’t quite imagine what that will look like, but I’m keen to find out.

    Friday by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 14)

    Friday Baldwin is genetically engineered ‘artificial person.’ Indistinguishable from a conventional human, she nonetheless is psychologically constrained by the way her society discriminates against her type.

    That’s pretty much her only constraint, though. Her engineered nature also gives her enhanced strength, reflexes, sight, hearing, and smell, as well as genius-level intelligence. She starts out as a courier and soon becomes a fugitive.

    This stands up pretty well, all these years since I first read it. The fragmented, Balkanised future North America is interesting. Easy travel everywhere by ‘tubes,’ which are presumably underground trains, and suborbital rockets. Corruption so pervasive that the characters don’t even notice it. You hand over your passport with ‘the appropriate squeeze’ folded inside it, and are waved through.

    Assignment in Eternity vols 1 & 2 by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 12 & 13)

    I should probably start a special tag for all this Heinlein rereading I’m doing (I have another one in progress). These books are so short that they hardly count as one novel between them, never mind each, but I’m counting them as two because I have two physically separate books.

    Plus they’re not only not one novel, they’re not even two. They are, in fact, four stories – the longest no more than a novella – loosely connected by the idea that humans don’t use all of their brain power, and we could do incredible things if we did.

    Oh, and an early analysis of what it is to be human, and whether human rights should be accorded to uplifted intelligent animals.

    All in all, a good enough, if slight, set of stories.

    The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 11)

    A set of linked short stories, this, all part of Heinlein’s Future History. In these days of companies launching rockets to the International Space Station, the title story seems slightly relevant. In it, businessman DD Harriman attempts to launch the first mission to the moon – it was written in the 40s, long before Apollo.

    They’re all decent enough stories. But we are in a very masculine world. The dodgy sexual politics of the last one are largely ignored by the almost complete absence of women. Except in ‘Let There Be Light,’ in which a women is effectively co-inventor of solar power panels.

    Heinlein’s writing of women characters is generally considered to be poor, and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s interesting to think how he developed from these early stories to the later novels, where at least there are women, and they are major characters.

    Beyond This Horizon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 10)

    I like these short books you can read in a day.

    A reread, of course. I read most or all of Heinlein from my early days of reading SF. But I read the blurb on the back of this and didn’t recognise it at all. Started reading, and it still wasn’t familiar.

    Then as I got closer to the end, it did start to seem familiar. Did I read the last quarter of it recently? Or is there a short-story version of part of it that I read not long ago? I don’t know, but it’s often strange how memory works.

    Anyway, the first point about this: the sexual politics are horrific. It’s a future society where men go armed routinely – and so it is a ‘polite’ society. It may be where the phrase ‘an armed society is a polite society’ comes from. I wonder what Heinlein (assuming that to be his actual view) would think of today’s armed society in America.

    Women, on the other hand, do not go armed, or do much else apart from be decorative and have babies. Mostly. One woman character wears a sidearm, but the protagonist does not exactly treat her with the respect he gives to other men.

    Men can choose not to go armed, in which case they have to wear the ‘Brassard of peace,’ and are treated as second-class citizens by the armed ‘braves.’

    But it’s not mainly about any of that. It’s about eugenics, and how and whether it’s possible to improve the human race ethically.

    In story terms it’s OK. It’s interesting enough that you want to know what happens, but it feels like its main purpose in existing is to examine the philosophical questions around eugenics. I note that it was published in 1942, so before the Nazis' experiments were known about.

    Glasgow Fairytale by Alastair D McIver (Books 2020, 9)

    This is exactly what its title says. Take all the best-known (in Britain, at least) fairytales, mash them up together, and set them in present-day Glasgow.

    It’s hilarious, and tons of fun.

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