books 2023

    Edinburgh by Alexander Chee (Books 2023, 27) πŸ“š

    Back in 2021, when I read Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I expressed an interest in this book, Edinburgh, largely because of its title. As I said then, ‘the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.’ There is, in fact, a tangential character in this who has a loose connection to the city, but it’s not relevant.

    What we have is a bildungsroman, the story of a boy becoming a man, knowing he’s gay from an early age, and going through various experiences both because of that fact and having nothing to do with it.

    But about halfway through, the first-person narrative switches to a different character’s first-person narrative, which caused me some confusion. The sections are headed with the name of the narrator, but since there is only this one change, then a change back for the last quarter, it wasn’t immediately obvious what was going on.

    That was OK though. What I didn’t enjoy so much was a kind of allusiveness that really became vagueness, which at times made it slightly hard to see what he was getting at. Especially in the last quarter.

    And that last quarter is the most difficult and problematic part of the whole. See, early on, the first narrator is abused, along with several classmates, by a teacher. This doesn’t seem to have much effect on the narrator, though it does on some of the other victims.

    But in the end the main narrator becomes an abuser himself; of the other narrator, who is linked to the whole story in a way that is, frankly, too coincidental. And it all ends in a kind of unresolved ambiguity which I found left a bad taste.

    All in all, I preferred his nonfiction.

    Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (Books 2023, 26) πŸ“š

    The first Christmas-present book, finished on boxing day. Short, and a page-turner.

    I’ve never read an Agatha Christie before, perhaps surprisingly. I’m not even sure I’ve seen any significant adaptation, except I once caught the end of one. Of this novel, unfortunately. So I sort of knew what the conclusion was, which meant I was seeing how the clues pointed in that direction.

    No matter, it’s still a great read, and makes me want to read more.

    The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith (Books 2023, 25) πŸ“š

    A reread so soon? Hell, yes, why not? I think I enjoyed it even more this time. It’s amazing how compelling a book can still be on a reread.

    The Affirmation by Christopher Priest (Books 2023, 24) πŸ“š

    I’ve had this book for years, and I thought I had read it. Took a look at it a week or two back and realised I hadn’t. So I did.

    What I also didn’t realise was that it’s a Dream Archipelago story. Which is surprising, since it starts in present-day (1980s) London. In fact it’s the first novel (though not, I think, the first story) to use the Dream Archipelago as a setting, or state of mind.

    Peter Sinclair suffers various crises in his personal life, and decides to write an autobiography to better understand himself. Through various revisions his writing becomes more fictionalised, until he’s writing about the islands. Or living in them. Is it alternative world or madness? Portal fantasy or mental breakdown?

    Or maybe both, or neither. You could argue that as a story it doesn’t entirely make sense, but I don’t think I’d go there. I mean, I’d go there, to the Archipelago, for sure (it feels a lot like Greece to me, and indeed Sinclair and his ex/not-ex girlfriend met there, we are told).

    It’s a novel that leaves you questioning its realities, and maybe your own. And that seems like a good thing to me.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Books 2023, 23)πŸ“š

    Why did nobody ever tell me that this book is funny? I had it in my head as a slightly worthy, if much-loved, courtroom drama. But the trial is only part of it, and quite small part at that. Though its ramifications play out to the end, and echo back to near the start.

    Scout is an endearing narrator, wise beyond her years, tough, smart. Lee conjures a believable, well-formed picture of life in small-town Alabama in the thirties. A place of community and friendship, gossip and criticism, poverty and hard work. And a few people, notably Atticus, of course, willing to do the right thing in the face of dangerous racist neighbours.

    It’s intriguing, from a writer’s perspective, how the narrative voice changes in the courtroom scenes when they do come.

    And Boo Radley gave the band their name. I don’t think I knew that, or if I did I’d forgotten.

    You don’t need me to tell you it’s a classic, and it turns out, for good reason.

    Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (Books 2023, 22) πŸ“š

    There is no evidence in the text of this book that it is SF. Yet here I have a copy, published in the SF Masterworks series.

    Graham Sleight addresses this in his introduction, but doesn’t try to give a conclusive reading either. There is no definitive answer, as the work is deliberately ambiguous.

    The titular Sarah is a woman described as β€˜ugly’ who turns up in the camp of some Chinese men who are working on railroads in the USA of the 1870s. She speaks no known human language, though she does make sounds. She gains her name later because, a character says, β€˜she sings like an angel’. One of the men, a young man called Chin, is volunteered to try to find where she belongs, or failing that, at least get rid of her, so she stops distracting them.

    So begins a trek across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Along the ways we meet various characters with various good and bad qualities.

    The ending is, as I say, ambiguous. We never find out who or what Sarah Canary is. But the journey is quite enjoyable.

    White Riot by Joe Thomas (Books 2023, 21) πŸ“š

    I picked this up because of the title, taken as it obviously is from an early song by my favourite band. I bought it because it is set in and around the famous anti-Nazi festival in Victoria Park in London. Or at least it starts there.

    Though that’s not quite true. It starts even closer to home for me: my kids' primary school is mentioned early on, and many other streets, pubs, takeaways and landmarks that still exist are visited.

    Joe Thomas was born in 1977, so he’s doing this from research, not memory, but it captures the area very well, and the time β€” well, from what I know of those times in London, I think he’s done a great job.

    It’s not mainly about the music scene, though. Thomas is a crime writer, and this is, kind of, a crime novel. And becomes more so as it goes on, and jumps to 1983. As you might imagine, given the notoriety of Stoke Newington Police Station of the time, it’s about bent coppers. And one more-or-less decent cop who is β€” we think β€” trying to bring them down.

    I say ‘We think’, because it’s not finished. It turns out it’s the start of a trilogy, with Red Menace and True Blue to follow. This one was only published this year, so I guess it’ll be a while before we see the followups.

    It’s all pretty good. It uses a slightly odd, cut-up sort of style: half sentences, fragments ending in dashes. But it’s very readable. As I say, I was drawn to it by the music and the locations, but I enjoyed spending time with the characters, and the situation is compelling. Real life events are stitched into fictional ones (or vice-versa).

    Unsurprisingly, then, it’s a very political book. And surprisingly Thatcher turns up as a character. I’m not sure why Thomas choose to do that. Maybe since most of the characters are on the left, it was to provide some sort of balance. Why not go as far up and right as possible, I suppose. I don’t mean Thatcher is the furthest-right person in it, to be fair: the National Front are heavily involved, too.

    The main police character is running ‘spycops’, and has operatives inside both the NF and the loose coalition of groups that oppose them (the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism, the Socialist Workers' Party). I expect as the series goes on we’ll see some version of the scandals around that whole business, too.

    In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Books 2023, 20) πŸ“š

    This isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally think of reading, but I’ve joined a book club at work, and this was the latest book. The China MΓ­eville I read recently was the first.

    This one is a historical novel based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters, three women from the Dominican Republic who were assassinated for political activism by the regime of the dictator Trujillo, in 1960. Among the history of Latin American dictatorships, that was one I had never heard of.

    A fictionalised story, bringing the characters to the fore. There’s relatively little about what they actually did regarding revolutionary activities, but lots about them as daughters, as mothers. It’s told from four points of view: each of the murdered sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Mate; and that of their surviving sister, DedΓ©.

    It’s a beautifully written novel, heartbreaking because you know how it’s going to end, and because the characters are so well-realised, so brought to life.

    The day they were murdered, the 25th of November 1960, is memorialised by the UN as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

    The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith (Books 2023, 19) πŸ“š

    It’s only a few days since I finished β€” just over a week since the year-long wait was over β€” and it seems like ages. Now we’re back into another wait β€” hopefully not more than a year β€” till we find out what’s next for Strike and Robin.

    Here, Robin has to go undercover to investigate a cult. By which I mean, she has to sign up as if she were a believer, and go deep, deep undercover. It gets very tense.

    Minor spoilers follow.

    I didn’t enjoy this as much as the previous one or two, I think. Certainly at first I was a bit disappointed because of the time-jump. We’re eight months after the end of The Ink Black Heart, when I had expected it to continue straight on, the way Troubled Blood flowed right into IBH.

    But I think the main problem was that the two main characters are separated for much of it, precisely because she’s undercover, so can’t really communicate with him.

    Of course, once it all kicked into gear, the pages kept turning like they always do. But, while it was great to see them bring down an appalling cult, it just wasn’t as emotionally resonant for me as, especially, the previous two.

    Canal Dreams by Iain Banks (Books 2023, 18) πŸ“š

    I’ve always considered this the least of Iain Banks’s novels. As, I think, did he. If I remember correctly, this was the one about which he said he wrote it without a plan, and he’d never do that again.

    So it’s strange, coming back to The Great Banksie Reread, and reading this for the first time in many years, to find that I liked it far more than I expected to. (Funny to note that my only other reference to it here was saying it was better than I remembered.)

    It’s not that bad at all. It doesn’t meander the way you might expect the ‘no plan’ thing to imply. What is striking is how apt the title is. A significant proportion of the narrative is taken up with the main character’s dreams. All of which either illuminate her past or tie in to other events in the plot, so they make sense.

    But whichever novelist it was that I remember saying, ‘Never have a dream sequence’ β€” Chris Priest, I think β€” must hate it.

    Fatal Revenant: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 2 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 17) πŸ“š

    Wordy, as I mentioned before. Long. Unnecessarily repetitive.

    But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

    I’m quite glad, though, I don’t have the other books yet. I feel it’s best to take a break after a story like this. Let it sink in. Prepare yourself, maybe, for the next one.

    Anyway, more of the same: The Land is in danger, Linden Avery’s son is in Lord Foul’s clutches, and she’s prepared to do just about anything to save it, and him. But especially him. I expect we’re going to see a situation where she puts the whole Land β€” the whole of Earth, indeed β€” in danger, by trying to save Jeremiah.

    Maybe she already has.

    Oh: people have far too many different names in this. I mean, names by which various people refer to them. In the very last chapter someone refers to ‘The Timewarden’. I was like, ‘That sounds like The Doctor; what the hell is going on?’ But they just meant Thomas Covenant.

    Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Books 2023, 16) πŸ“š

    Normally speaking I’d claim a novel written in the 1930s and set in the late 40s for science fiction. But this doesn’t quite reach the threshold. There are around three obvious things that are futuristic: a reference to the Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946; ‘air mail’, where a package sent from London is dropped into a field in Sussex; and the astonishing combination of phone and television, allowing the callers to see as well as hear each other! Or rather, one caller to see the other, since phone boxes don’t have ‘television dials’ (but must at least have cameras).

    Oh, and the train service has become rubbish, not because of the car or Beeching, but because (wealthy) people mostly fly.

    But all that is nothing compared to how funny and overall good this novel is. Stella Gibbons wrote many other novels, but all of them are out of print but this, which is a great shame.

    The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Books 2023, 15) πŸ“š

    I started readingthis a few years back, and stopped after the first chapter or so, because it seemed too similar to the thing I was trying to write at the time. I didn’t want to be overly influenced, or worse, unconsciously plagiarise it.

    But it’s always been in the back of my mind. And recently I’ve been trying to get back into that novel I was working on then, and finding it difficult. So I thought maybe reading the space opera I backed away from because it was too similar to my own nascent space opera would be just what I needed to get me kickstarted.

    That hasn’t quite happened yet (maybe because I read it on holiday), but I loved the hell out of this.

    Great characters you enjoy spending time with. A plot that’s just believable enough, with stakes that are high for the characters and then get higher. An interesting, believable galactic political background, with Earth as very much the minor player.

    None of the nonhuman characters feel really alien, except from in their physical descriptions, but that’s OK.

    I’d say, if you liked Firefly, you’ll like this.

    Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Books 2023, 14) πŸ“š

    I’ve been meaning to read this since I read a review of it back when it came out, in 2017. So, six years on, I finally did.

    It’s surprisingly slight, given all the fuss and praise. I wasn’t familiar with Saunders before reading that review, but he is famous for his short stories. I’ve read a few of those since β€” at least one during my MA β€” and they’re fine, but to my mind tend to suffer from the problem that many short stories have.

    I’ve mentioned this here before, though seemingly only once. Often, when I read a short story β€” even, or perhaps especially, by one of the supposed greats of of the form: Carver, Hemingway, even Chekhov β€” I’m left thinking, ‘So what? What was the point of writing that, and why did you leave it where you did?’

    However, I recognise the skill that it takes to conjure a life, a character, in few words. And Saunders makes good use of that ability here. Because the story is not very much about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even that much about his son, Willie, who is the one who is actually in the ‘bardo’, a place where souls wait after death in some schools of Buddhism. Rather, it’s about some of the other souls that are trapped in the same Washington graveyard. We get a whole host of compressed backstories.

    And we get altogether too many quotes from books and articles about Lincoln and the death of his son. I haven’t investigated to see whether these are from actual Lincoln biographies, histories of the American Civil War, and so on, or they are cleverly invented by Saunders. (This Wikipedia article suggests it’s a mixture.) But I found them much less interesting than the stories of the dead souls. A few would have been fine, for background, but it feels like they make up about half the book.

    More stories about the dead, please.

    Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Books 2023, 13) πŸ“š

    Piranesi has always lived in the house; even if that’s not his name, which it may not be.

    A fantastic and fantastical, strange book, this; much simpler and shorter than Susanna Clarke’s previous, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I loved. I kind of love this, too.

    I don’t have a lot to say about it, though, as to say much would be to spoil it.

    The Runes of the Earth: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 12) πŸ“š

    Forty years ago it was: towards the end of school, Watty β€” he of the Number 6 badge, celebrating The Prisoner β€” turned me on to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

    ‘What does he not believe in?’ I asked.

    ‘Everything!’ said Watty with relish.

    It took me a while to get into the first book. There was an early section where I ground to a halt. But I went back to it, and ripped through the five books of the two trilogies that were out yet.

    Then I had to wait. This is largely why I try not to start a series before its author has finished writing it. Those weeks and months through the first year of uni were interminable. (Only in that one regard, though, to be fair.)

    There was a guy on my corridor in the halls of residence who was similarly waiting, and when White Gold Wielder came out, he bought it at once.

    In hardback. I was shocked by the profligacy, and didn’t emulate him. Besides, it wouldn’t have matched my paperbacks.

    But after he’d read it, he lent it to me. I wish I could remember his name.

    So it should be clear that I liked the books a lot. However, I was thereafter corrupted by the general consensus that these were not well-written books, not a good example of the genre.

    And yes, sure, they’re not particularly well-written. Donaldson can be over-wordy and repetitive at times. But he knew how to weave a tale that gripped me.

    And now, forty years hence, after my son had borrowed my old copies and read them (including my paperback of White Gold Wielder, which I bought to complete the set, but have never read, since I never reread the series) he discovered (something which I vaguely knew) that Donaldson had written a ‘final’ trilogy. Which has since turned into a tetralogy. I don’t know when that happened. This volume that I read β€” my son’s β€” says it’s three volumes.

    So how is it? Pretty damn good, actually. A copious ‘What Has Gone Before’ leads off, and reminds me how much I don’t remember about the original six books. And then β€” well, I don’t want to get into spoilers, but after the first hundred or so pages, it’s a real page-turner for the next four hundred or so, and leaves me keen to know how it all ends.

    So expect more of this stuff here, in due course. This time, it’s all finished, and there will be no need for me to wait for a final volume.

    The City & the City by China Mieville (Books 2023, 11) πŸ“š

    It’s like China wanted to write a police procedural, a detective story. But being China, there was no way it could be set in the quotidian world of today.

    Which is great.. The setup here is that there are two cities, BesΕΊel an Ul Qoma, somewhere in Eastern Europe; but they both occupy the same space. People in on can’t interact with those in the other.

    That’s about as much as I knew about it before I started.

    In another way it feels it’s kind of an extended metaphor for how we don’t notice things that are right under our noses. Or, as my beloved said, just for how we can live in a city like London alongside people from other cultures, people who look and dress differently, who even move differently; and never interact with them

    This is both good and bad, of course. Or can be both or either depending on the circumstances. Because we’re ignoring other people, whole swathes of them. The live their lives, full, rich, desperate, happy, sad; and we know nothing of them. They know nothing of us. Yet we don’t get in their way. We don’t interfere with them. We let them get on with their lives, and they us with ours, not causing them problems, as they cause us none.

    Or only the most minor of inconveniences as we avoid each other on the street.

    But is there even a third city, co-terminal with the two we know about? Some believe there is. Does Orciny exist?

    You’ll have to read it to find out.

    The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Books 2023, 10) πŸ“š

    To tide me over until the new Strike book comes out (in just under two months) I suddenly decided to reread JK’s single non-pseudonymous, non-magical book. It’s over a decade old now, which is kind of hard to believe.

    And it’s still bloody heartbreaking. How she can make us feel so much for so many flawed characters (but especially one or two) in so few words, never stops amazing me.

    It’s a slice of small-town England, in which a parish council member dies, leaving the titular vacancy. And all that proceeds from that. It shouldn’t be as compelling as it is, based on that description. But there you go.

    Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (Books 2023, 9) πŸ“š

    I mentioned in May, that I had been reading this. It’s taken me till now to finish it.

    In another sense it’s taken me a lot longer: I first started reading it in 2004. Back then I was doing an Open University literature course. In one module an extract from Daniel Deronda was one of the options for us to write about. I think I must have chosen it, because my tutor sung its praises, saying it was a great one to read over Christmas, ‘curled up next to the fire.’

    So I bought it and started it at the time. I can be fairly sure of this, as the bookmarks I found in it, when I picked it up back in May, were a pair of old-school paper train tickets from 2004. Two markers, of course, because this is a classics edition with comprehensive endnotes.

    The main bookmark was around page 200, so I got a decent way into it. Except this is a book of over 800 pages, so actually not that far. I don’t know why I stopped. Probably just got distracted by other books and petered out. I started from the beginning again this time, and found I remembered almost nothing of what I read nearly 20 years ago.

    But enough meta story about my history with the book. What of the book itself?

    It’s really two main interwoven stories. The title character appears briefly, wordlessly, in the first scene, and then is not seen again for the whole of the first book (it was originally published serially, and is internally divided into eight books). First we get the start of the story of Gwendolen Harleth, a young woman of fair but limited means, who might expect to marry well. Until her family falls into poverty.

    Her story at times feels like it’s going to be a conventional, Austenesque romance. It is not, of course: it’s much more complex than that.

    The other story is about how Daniel Deronda rescues a young Jewish woman from self-inflicted drowning, and finds her a home, and what follows from that. This section is largely about the way Jews were treated at the time (the 1870s), and the idea that they might seek a homeland. The start of Zionism, in effect. Deronda is sympathetic to the plight of the Jews generally, as he is to Mirah, the woman he rescued. But then, he’s synmpathetic to just about everyone.

    The darkest part of this story shows us how terrifyingly restricted, locked down, controlled, a married woman could be in those times. the husband in question is not physically violent, he simply controls all aspects of their lives, and hence her life. She has no hope of escape. It’s powerfully understated, and all the more chilling for that.

    Some sentences are overly long by modern standards, and some of the language is complex or old-fashioned enough to be confusing, but it usually becomes clear with careful reading. And it doesn’t detract from the power of the storytelling.

    Punk Publishing: A DIY Guide, by Andy Conway & David Wake (Books 2023, 8) πŸ“š

    I bought this on my recent visit to Eastercon, from one of the authors, David Wake.

    I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of self-publishing before this, but Wake was on a panel about what to watch out for when you first get a publishing contract (his point: nothing, if you self-publish). He made some good points about the advantages of doing it yourself versus the traditional publishing route. For example, you don’t send your sample chapters and synopsis in then wait two years for someone to decide. And even if they say yes, it could be another two years before your book is published.

    I don’t know which way I’ll go with my recently-finished draft, but I thought it was worth spending a fiver on this to check out the possibilities. And it seems a decent guide to how you can approach publishing both ebooks and paperbacks, for minimal outlay.

    It doesn’t go into things like cover design and marketing, which, of course, are some of the things that traditional publishers handle.

    I might give it a spin, though, with a novella that I’ve got sitting around. We shall see.

    Anyway, take a look at this if you’re interested in the possibilities. Their website is here.

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