‘Tis the Season – My best books of 2014

whatmakesAnother year has passed with lots of books read. My first thoughts on 2014 is that it was inferior vintage to 2013, but looking at my running list of best books, I see there are 17 this year compared with last year’s 18. Almost no difference, yet I still feel that this year wasn’t as good as the previous twelve months. I think it’s because this year there has has been a lack of consistency in quality. I’ve read a number of books that are merely OK and more books than usual that are downright terrible. I’ve read some good books this year, I’ve read some great books, but I’ve read more books than usual that I hope never to see again.

Let’s forget the bad, and talk about the good.

kindredMy best books this year are dominated by science fiction and fantasy, and it’s perhaps appropriate that the one non-fiction title on the list (and indeed probably the only one I read this year) is Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Good, a collection of essays from TOR.com in which Walton rereads some of her favourite books. The anthology is a wonderfully enthusiastic peon to books and reading. There were books I’d read, books I wanted to read, books I’d never heard of and now want to read, and the occasional book I’m not going to read even if you paid me. It added about fifteen titles to my TBR pile and prompted me to start my own one man book club. This led me to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, conveniently reissued by Headline. This is a time travel novel that explores attitudes to slavery and the insidiousness of oppression.  It’s every bit as good as Walton said it would be.

planesrunnerIan McDonald’s Everness series has given me a great deal of pleasure this year. All three books are highly entertaining. These are aimed at the YA market, so zip along. McDonald’s device gives him the opportunity to create billions of alternate Earths, where almost anything can happen. He makes great use of this, delivering the unexpected, the intriguing and the downright scary. An altogether more serious science fiction read is Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark. Set in the near future, the book chronicles the struggle of an autistic computer savant as he tries to navigate a world he is one step disconnected from. Thought provoking and moving, the book debates whether autism is a curse or a blessing, and if it could be cured, should it be?

copperThis year is the year in which I finally found some Fantasy novels that made me happy. Richard Ford’s Shattered Crown and Jen Williams’ Copper Promise are epic fantasies cut from the same cloth as David Gemmell. But where Gemmell fashioned the same pair of curtains over and over, these two have run up something altogether different, pulling swords and sorcery firmly into the twenty-first century.  Excellent characterisation with mixed motivations, and interesting plots blended with bowel loosening excitement made these hard to put down (except to prevent the occasional accident). The Shattered Crown is sequel to the equally good, Herald of the Storm and the Copper Promise has the best depiction of a dungeon crawl I have ever read. It had me itching to play D&D right then and there (for those unsure, this is a compliment).

Away from SFF, there were slim pickings. 2014 saw a slump in the amount of non-genre fiction I read. Since starting the blog, I seem to have returned to my reading roots. This is perhaps because the SFF community is so vibrant on Twitter. I keep hearing about so many good books, that I just want to keep reading them. Backed up with some very lovely people in PR departments prepared to let me loose on their books, and I have lots of easily accessible speculative and fantastic fiction to sink my gnashers into.

in bloomEliott Hall’s Chandleresque The Rapture is excellent detective noir, but as it’s set in the near future, it doesn’t really count as being away from science fiction. I read bestselling juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars and was as bewitched as everybody else. I also read Matthew Crow’s British take on the bastard that is cancer. In Bloom is not as artful as Green’s novel, but to me it seemed more real. It’s a deeply moving portrait of illness, but above all it’s about the power of family love and the bond between brothers. A slim and deeply affecting read.

enchantedAnother slender novel is Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted. It’s brutal and unflinching and not at all comfortable to read. A devastating critique of the American penal system, The Enchanted ought to be compulsory reading for anybody charged with the care and rehabilitation of people sent to prison. Tim Leach made a welcome return to my reading list, with his follow up to his peerless historical novel The Last King of Lydia. The King and the Slave is a direct sequel, and whilst it didn’t quite reach the heady heights of its predecessor, Leach showed once again how to make ancient history read like current affairs.

All of these novels were good. They gave me great joy to read, but in 2014 four books towered over the rest. I find it almost impossible to rank them, but I think one just about pips the others to the post for my novel of the year.

the martianThe most readable book of 2014 was Andy Weir’s The Martian. A book I almost didn’t read.  It is science fiction in its purest form. Fiction about science. Robinson Crusoe on Mars; survival in a unbelievably harsh environment, with little more than ingenuity and disco music to help it’s hero survive. It is the closest thing to unputdownable I’ve read in many a year.

dreamingLavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s seamless, like a master-worked puzzle box. I could only marvel out how the novel’s variety of influences and themes dovetailed together without any visible joins. It’s a story within a story; a Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz imagines an alternate Earth where Hitler is ousted from power and is now a private detective in pre-war London. It shouldn’t work but it does, brilliantly and it elevates Lavie Tidhar towards the the top of my must-read author list.

my real childrenJo Walton probably crowns that list right now, not only for 2012’s beautiful Among Others, but for this years equally sublime My Real Children. A Sliding Doors novel where acceptance or not of a marriage proposal leads a young woman down very different paths. Both narratives take place in familiar yet alien realities, and like Tidhar’s novel, the real and the unreal blend seamlessly. A wonderful portrayal of love in all its forms, this novel is science fiction for people who hate science fiction.

SmilersFair_VISUAL1

And the winner is…

My final choice, and therefore my book of 2014 is Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene. A second world fantasy, set a in world without heroes. The novel centres around the wonderful Smiler’s Fair, an endlessly travelling carnival, that brings with it joy, and leaves despair in its wake. It’s a genesis story, that examines the power of myth and how it might be established. It has a host of characters all brilliantly realised and its plot is fresh, innovative and very clever. By the end I was utterly enthralled. Despite casting aside many of the genre’s conventions with a success few authors achieve, it also manages to be comfortingly familiar. Something about Levene’s style reminded me of my teenage addiction – The Belgariad by David Eddings. Levene reworks Eddings’ black and white simplicity to give it multiple shades of grey, all the time remaining wonderfully readable. The resulting novel made me feel like I was thirteen again, had me enchanted throughout and leaves things on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that leaves me desperate for book two.

So there it is a rambling account of my literary year. If you made it this far, thank you for reading. If you are one the lovely PR people who sends me books, many many thanks for supporting my habit. If you’ve been following the blog, thank you again. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and maybe discovered some books that you otherwise mightn’t. I hope 2015 brings you all many exciting reads, and I’ll continue cataloguing mine here. As one recent commenter urged me to do, I’ll ensure I keep being honest.

Thanks for reading!

 

Beauty in Madness – A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

dreamingLavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming is a Chinese puzzle box created by a master craftsman. It’s made from the highest quality materials, fitted together seamlessly and polished with great care and attention. Opening the box reveals the unexpected and leaves the reader with an exultant sense of wonder as they study the magic of its construction. Yes. I liked this book.

Tidhar’s novels somehow ought not to work – Osama sets up Osama bin Laden as a fictional vigilante and The Violent Century reinvents WWII with superheroes. Both are exceptional pieces of writing. Challenging, entertaining and thought-provoking. A Man Lies Dreaming continues the trend. It features a novel within a novel; Shomer, a prisoner of war, escapes the brutality of his life in Auschwitz by imagining a story. Before the war Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. His new story, a tale that exists only in his head, makes Adolf Hitler an exile in London, in 1939, having been ousted from his country by the communists. Europe is in turmoil, standing on the brink of war. ‘Wolf’ is an almost forgotten footnote of history; a gumshoe, a dick, a detective for hire on the streets of London.

The novel is a wonderful blend of styles, filled with reference and homage. There are obvious comparisons with Chandler and Hammet, but Tidhar borrows from Holocaust literature and modern popular culture too. This is speculative fiction, written from a perspective of a writer looking forward from the past. Tidhar expertly foreshadows trends and attitudes that are current today. Most notably, in his depiction of Oswald Mosley as a viable candidate for prime minister. In a world without a fascist Germany, British blackshirts have a chance to rise to the top. This feels cleverly plausible; Britain is, I think, a largely tolerant nation, but somehow you get the feeling that whilst we’d all deny it, it might not take much to push us over into fascism (probably starting with forming an orderly queue). Tidhar cleverly and overtly borrows from UKIP party rhetoric to make his point. Anybody who is thinking of voting for them should probably read this book, though the point the author is making is probably far too subtle.

There are some beautiful speculations on the world of literature and film, which are intriguing and entertaining in equal measure. There is a great vein of humour running through the book including a famous film being reimagined to involve F Scott Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. The multitude of these small but joyous moments give the book wonderful depth and texture. All this is underpinned by strong research and a passion for the subject matter. There are several pages of end-notes that peel back the layers of fact and fiction, revealing the seamless construction of the novel.

Whilst it has lighter moments, the heart of the book is deeply sad. Some books use the horror of holocaust like a sledgehammer to convey the sense of tragedy, without really making any real attempt to articulate the suffering, misery and cruelty inside the camps. Here the horror is dealt with gently, very much on an individual scale. The ease of which humans can become beasts is depicted in subtle shades and the novel is all the more powerful for it.

A Man Lies Dreaming had me reading late into the night, which very few novels do these days. My two-year old, five o’clock alarm call, usually puts paid to that, but I could not put this book down. I had that sense that comes with the very best of novels; hurtling towards the end desperate to finish, whilst all the time hoping the story never runs out. It many ways it doesn’t. The novel’s ending is an open one. We know what happens, and yet we don’t, for who really knows what goes on inside a man as he lays dreaming? This is a wonderful novel that I would recommend to everybody (though possibly not if you’re squeamish or dislike graphic sex scenes). It’s beautifully crafted, but there is no trick to revealing the magic inside, just lift the pages and start turning.

Many Thanks to Anne at Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a copy of this wonderful book. 

 

 

The Chaffinch? – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch-largeSix hundred pages into The Goldfinch, I realised that reading Donna Tartt is like childbirth. That’s why she only brings novels out every ten years. Time polishes your memory. You yearn for the scintillating prose, the cute turn of phrase, the scholarly tone. You forget the excruciating agony and the fervent wish that it would all be over. You forget swearing to whatever deity is listening that you will never do this again.

So here I am (again).

It’s always tricky reviewing books by glittering literati, particularly when you didn’t like the book. The Goldfinch has nearly 1,000 5* reviews on Amazon, so people clearly enjoyed it. I’m left wondering what I missed, because it is probably the worst book I’ve read in the last 10 years.

To be clear, it’s neither the most shambolic or poorly written. There’s no hackneyed dialogue and cardboard characters; heaven knows I’ve read a few of those over the years. There are some beautiful passages in the Goldfinch, but it is so overblown. It’s a monumentally massive read for such little reward. It barely thrills, it certainly doesn’t enlighten. It revealed nothing to me about the human condition, which I consider to be one of the most important jobs of a work of ‘Great American Fiction’. The two messages I took home from the book, is that ‘life is shit’ and ‘ great art outlives its creators’. Hardly earth-shattering revelations.

The book is detail heavy, not in itself an issue. It’s hard to imagine that all the subjects covered would appeal to all readers, unless you were a master cabinet maker with an keen interest in recreational drugs, but nevertheless the novel’s richness is part of its appeal. The problem for me is that the detail is pointless. The story that punctuates throughout is flimsy and predicated on coincidence; something I really hate. The final third of the novel is particularly weak. There is far too much wallowing in self-pity, several horrible telegraphed deus ex machina (or perhaps the opposite of – ‘No really, you must give me your passport – nothing bad will happen to it. I’ll lock it in the glovebox. See NOTHING BAD CAN POSSIBLY HAPPEN.’ I paraphrase, obviously). The final ten pages are hideous pseudo-philosophy, included, I assume, to give the book some heft, but actually make the lead character sound like he’s trying to crawl up his own arse.

I am left to question the point of this novel. I don’t understand how somebody could publish it as is, let alone pontificate about its brilliance. Perhaps the kerching of cash registers drowned out the dissenters at Little Brown. Perhaps many readers and reviewers were too embarrassed to say they didn’t like it; compelled to like it because it was written by the author of the hallowed Secret History. Perhaps it’s just shit. Perhaps this is a really good novel that I have failed to understand. Maybe, but probably not. There are some gold ears of corn here, but there is significantly more chaff.

 

 

Roses are Meh – Research by Philip Kerr

researchResearch by Philip Kerr has raised an interesting question in my mind, that I’d never really thought about before. How do author’s feel when they release novels that are inferior to previous works? Do the even know? With Bernie Gunther and his original Berlin Noir trilogy, Kerr created one of modern crime fiction’s finest characters and gave him stories to match. The subsequent Bernie Gunther novels, whilst a couple of them approach the original three, simply aren’t as good. I was interested when I learned Kerr had written a new non-Gunther novel. I’ve read a couple of his others, (Dark Matter and Hitler’s Peace), which I’d mostly enjoyed. How would Research compare? To be honest, at best, it’s mediocre.

Successful pop stars with long careers, are generally carried by their early work; their seminal albums. They might still be going thirty years later, but nobody especially wants to hear their new stuff. Who wants to listen to high-flying birds, when you could be having a champagne supernova? Outlaw Pete is not Born to Run and let’s not even start on Wings vs The Beatles. Obviously it’s not always true, but I often wondered how artists feel about consistently producing work that’s poorer quality than their old stuff. Perhaps they don’t care if the money keeps coming in. Perhaps they believe it is just as good, after all public popularity is hardly the yardstick of high quality.

With authors though I imagine the effect is more marked. Popular music is catchy hooks and memorable lines. Writing novels is heart, body and soul; hours of hard work, lovingly polished. That’s not to say some songs aren’t painstakingly crafted, but nobody wrote a bestselling novel in under 10 mins. If you’ve lived and breathed all your novels, surely you know would which ones are good and which ones are just OK.  Unless of course you were James Patterson and somebody wrote your novels for you. Then perhaps you’d have no idea.

One of the narrators of Research novel might be similarly clueless. John Houston is an ideas factory. He churns out plots and a team of anonymous writers turns them into novels. They sell millions. Houston is filthy rich, his writers comfortable. He lives the high-life in Monte Carlo, they live in bitter resentment. His wife has just been killed. They all might be in the frame if Houston didn’t look so open and shut guilty. The other narrator is Don Irvine, the closest thing the unlikeable Houston has to a best friend and the first writer employed in the ‘atelier’. The basis of the novel is, did Houston kill his wife? If not, who did and how an earth did they do it? It’s like something James Patterson didn’t write.

The novel is fairly entertaining. Lots of jokes about the publishing industry, which are funny if you like that sort of thing. Plenty of literary references to enjoy or endure, depending on which way your mind is set. There are some witty rejoinders, though Kerr seems to have forgotten that whilst his authors might write quips into their novels, if they speak that way all the time, they sound like the result of a bad creative writing exercise.

The main problem though is that the central story just isn’t that interesting. By the end I couldn’t remotely care whether the perpetrator got away with the crime or not. The story leading up to it was far-fetched yet hum-drum ordinary. The reveal in the middle was as exciting as sitting on punctured whoopie cushion. This sort of novel, with a mystery running through it’s core, lives or dies by the twist in the final pages. The one that turns the novel into something else entirely. You’ve seen the Usual Suspects, you know what I’m talking about.

Kerr neglected to put it in.

The novel bumbles along, with cloak, daggers and duplicity. We’re treated to a few extra bodies, and then pffft; nothing. The novel closes and the reader wonders why he bothered. It feels like somebody forgot to print the last fifty pages, where all the trickery is revealed. I have no idea whether Kerr thinks this novel is as good as his others. It’s so much weaker it’s hard to believe that he does. Writers have to earn a living, they need to keep producing novels. Not every book can as brilliant as the last, but this one is a massive disappointment.

Many Thanks to Corinna at Quercus for sending me a copy of this book. 

I know your face – Glow by Ned Beauman

glowThis is the third, and most straightforward Ned Beauman novel I have read. After the description defying Boxer Beetle and the looping swooping picaresque Teleportation Accident, Glow is almost run of the mill. Had it been written by somebody else, rather than describing it as straightforward I’d be saying it was a psychedelic mind-bending crime caper, because, well, that’s what it is.

Raf, a young man with a sleep disorder and a penchant for experimental drugs is at a rave in a laundrette in Peckham. Here he meets the enigmatic Cherish. He proceeds to give her some dodgy ‘Glow’ before she disappears leaving Raf wondering whether she ever really existed. After that things fall apart.

The head of the pirate radio station that Raf listens to disappears in unusual circumstances, and curiously, the station starts broadcasting a Burmese culture segment. When a crumpled man claiming to be from M16 starts talking about silent white vans plucking strangers off the street, Raf finds himself embroiled in a complicated corporate plot.

In the main I enjoyed Glow a great deal. It has that same askew world-view that Beauman brings to his other novels. It’s the world I live in but it’s described in a manner I’ve never contemplated before. His prose brings a freshness to the old and tired, and there are few things tireder than a inner London suburb. There is a wonderful theme running through the book of circadian rhythms. Various characters, for different reasons find their body clocks are out of sync with the rest of humanity. The way Beauman depicts these disorders makes them feel other-worldly. A great number of words are devoted to the psychotropic nature of drugs such as MDMA and the fictional Glow. Tied into this is a plot involving American corporations operating in Burma. This SE Asian theatre, the drugs and the multiple strands of misinformation put me in mind of Dennis Johnson’s multi-stranded novel ‘Tree of Smoke’.

The plot tends towards the preposterous, which again is typical of Beauman’s novels, but there is big enough vein of truth to make the events plausible if improbable. The thriller aspects of the novel entertain, the descriptions of the effects of the drugs inform (sometimes overly so) and the writing often dazzles. Occasionally I found the rarified language used grated, sometimes feeling out of context from setting and narrator, but it doesn’t derail the novel as a whole. With Glow Beauman has written a novel based upon a common premise and given it a fresh and unique flavour. I’m not sure if this will convert Beauman’s detractors or gain him a new following, but if you’re a fan there is much to enjoy here. If you’ve not read Beauman before I think I’d recommend starting with Boxer Beetle.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme. 

So, he’s handsome then? – A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A-Discovery-of-WitchesThis book is too long. The story is interesting, but there’s about three hundred pages of redundant description. To make matters worse it’s not even a complete story. I did know there were follow up books, but I had thought this volume stood in its own right, which it don’t.

I’m prepared to concede this book isn’t aimed at me. The numerous references to Twilight and the words, ‘illicit’, ‘sexy’ and ‘romp’ in the blurb, should have tipped me off.

Brooding and wonderfully handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont, I assume, has female readers swooning. He certainly seems to have an affect on narrator Diana Bishop; we’re told he does over and over again. We’re told he is handsome, that he broods, that he wears grey clothes. He’s an animal, he’s caring, he’s protective. His skin is cold. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s brooding, he wears grey clothes.  He’s handsome, his skin is cold, he’s brooding, he’s lived for a long time, he’s an animal, he’s clever, he’s handsome, he’s protective, he broods, he wears grey clothes; and, oh yes, he’s cold. Not sure about blood-sucking, but DoW certainly sapped my will to live.

She’s a witch, he’s a vampire. Two races, naturally mistrustful when not outright hostile. She’s in denial about being a witch. He’s lived for centuries. He’s a monster, she’s…er… a history professor. He has cold blood (did I mention that), and is, apparently, above averagely handsome. For reasons that are vaguely explained they fall madly in love with one another almost immediately, but it’s a forbidden love. Mixed race relationships definitely frowned upon. The scene where Matthew takes Diana back to his family castle to meet his centuries old witch hating mother is like Twilight crossed with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Anyway he’s all arcane knowledge, pent up aggression and ice cool control. Imagine George Clooney as a salt-water crocodile.

OK – I exaggerate. The romance stuff did take up too much of my time, especially as it’s so overblown but the fantasy/magic via academia thread eventually lured me in. The three races of creatures living amongst us, daemon, vampire and witch, is hardly original, but the evolutionary biology standpoint that Harkness takes does give a fresh angle. Science vs supernatural is always a blend I enjoy, and the author lends it some academic rigour that feels plausible whilst it entertains. Origin stories are nearly always interesting and so it is with the root of Diana’s power, particularly whilst she is investigating what she can do. The various branches of her witchy talents are interesting and well thought out.

I know this book is very popular and has a large following, but I can’t fathom why. It’s like Twilight but more grown up, the Da Vinci Code with more rigour, but it’s little more than that. There was enough in it to keep me reading, though I was sorely tempted to stop a number of times. There are places where it’s just plain boring and, as I may have mentioned, repetitive. It is intermittently readable and exciting, but templars, witches and old books aren’t enough on their own to make a brilliant story, no matter how many times you tell me how handsome the lead vampire is. Perhaps its academic leanings have dressed the book up to be something more interesting than it really is (probably in enigmatic monochrome), but I found it little more than average.

Many Thanks to the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of this book. 

One Sided? – The Circle by Dave Eggers

circleI’m quite torn by this book. It’s certainly readable and makes some persuasive arguments about the perils of an increasingly connected society. It is also over-simplified and one-dimensional, with allegory as subtle as being smashed across the face with a house brick.

Google, Twitter and Facebook have all been swept aside by ‘The Circle’. It’s the unifying piece of social media that just about everybody uses.  It was created by a Mark Zuckerberg figure, and led to the founding of a company that everybody in the world wants to work for. The novel opens with Mae Holland’s first day as a ‘Circler’. She’s thrilled and more than a little overawed. Her role is in customer satisfaction. Her aim, to ensure everybody rates her and the company 100. Anything below 97 is cause for concern. Mae has the perfect job in the perfect company, where her employers fulfil her every need and every night is party night. What could possibly go wrong?

The more I think about the book, the more I remember what I liked in it. Eggers is very good at stripping down our social media habits and examining each part. With a small amount of extrapolation he shows them for the absurdities they are. For example, the fact that 95% satisfaction is something to be concerned about; job threatening even. Clearly ridiculous, yet in the online age, anything less than 100% on feedback is considered a slight. And we’re encouraged to feedback on everything all the time.

So it is for Mae, only more so. When she fails to feedback, she finds she has upset her colleagues and friends at the Circle. She becomes obsessed with liking the right stuff, and ensuring she ‘smiles’ enough of her Circle’s posts, to at least give the appearance of engagement. Sound familiar? Further to that, much of The Circle is devoted to the idea, that seeing/hearing about somebody else doing something is the same as doing it yourself. Seeing pictures of a World Heritage site is as good as experiencing it yourself. This too is barely fiction.

The novel is set in the near future where the increased availability of cheap cameras, microphones and data storage, make it possible for complete access to a person 24/7.  The aim of The Circle is greater access to information and data, all the time. Transparency of thought, action and desire.The company claims it makes the world a better place, whilst at the same time, they use the data to monetise just about everything. It’s a world view very similar to the one created in Aleana Graedon’s The Word Exchange.  Mae is chastised by her superiors for taking some private moments. She is preventing countless others from learning from her experiences. Secrecy causes the world’s problems, one of the company’s three CEOs claims in a persuasive polemic. The technology anaesthetises us into going along with him.

The novel highlights the possibility of the world sliding into a capitalist totalitarian state, with the hearts, mind and wallets of the population ensnared by degrees. It does all sound frighteningly plausible, yet I’m not convinced. The novel is delivered very much from a single perspective. There are almost no dissenters, and the one person who does dissent is too rabidly anti The Circle. He’s a caricature.

I agree with Eggers that many people are sleepwalking to the point where they’ll no longer be able to find their way back from the shops without their phones, but there is a large slice of population, old and young, who are wide awake and fighting off the digital chloroform.  The book is over long. Perhaps this is to make the gradual erosion of Mae’s common sense in the face of her employer plausible. Death by a thousand cuts maybe, but each slice takes us over the same ground and it becomes tedious.

Worse is the reveal that isn’t a revelation, and a aquarium based interlude that contains the least subtle allegory since the resurrection of Aslan. Not only is this a breeze-block to the nose, I strongly suspect it would be impossible in reality. I’m not a marine-biologist, but even a rudimentary understanding garnered through watching the Octonauts, tells me the impossibility of the fish-tank Eggers created. To have something so fundamental so glaringly wrong threw the whole book out of kilter for me. With something so transparent and stupid included it’s hard to take the rest of the novel seriously.

Whilst I liked many of The Circle’s assertions, I was left disappointed by the novel overall. By the end Eggers sounded a bit too much like a madman standing on his soapbox in Hyde Park. Yes I think he has legitimate concerns, but his portrayal of them is not the measured, balanced response I might have expected. In the parlance of his creation, this is neither Smile nor Frown. I’m just bemused that the good and indifferent can lie so closely together.

For similar reads this year see also:

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

Glaze by Kim Curran

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

(and the already mentioned Word Exchange)

A Murmuration of Gods – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsIf I was writing the tagline for City of Stairs, I’d be tempted to go with ‘China Mieville meets Alif the Unseen‘. In the SFF world this is a pretty potent combination. The only problem is I didn’t wholly enjoy Alif and I seem to be the only person in the science fiction community who doesn’t like Mieville. After reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s accomplished and thought-provoking novel, I can’t help wondering whether perhaps I have a problem with the new and interesting…

The themes and concepts here are manifold and have great depth. The end of the book left me reeling with its examination of the fluidity of history and the power of fable, but at times I found reading CoS something of a chore. It didn’t really pull me along. The novel is essentially a political whodunnit set in a complex secondary universe. There seemed to be a lot of information dumped on the reader. The complexity of the world and its systems overwhelmed the story set inside it. Just processing the political aspects of the book took up a great deal of my attention, so I struggled to find a sense of story. Things happened, but I didn’t feel it compelled to read. There is little driving force to the narrative and, at times, I felt things happened to the characters rather than them being the architects of the novel’s events.

And yet…

The complex artifice of the city of Bulikov is essential for the novel’s wider themes. Such is the strength of the allegory in City of Stairs, I had a peculiar sense that it was a reworked The Master and Margarita. Using a world similar yet wholly different from ours Jackson Bennett tells a fascinating fable of modern attitudes and beliefs. By subverting traditional genre ideas of race and gender (i.e. not viewing everything from the perspective of white males), the author wipes the slate clean, erasing his readers’ preconceptions (well this one’s anyway). I think it’s the rebuilding process that made the novel a bumpy read for me. Nothing is certain, everything is new and open to interpretation. There’s work to be done by the reader and that’s tiring. I found reading Bulgakov hard work too…

City of Stairs is a novel better than my enjoyment levels give it credit for. It reveals the perils of accepting religious dogma as truth, but also the importance of attempting to understand why a group believe the things they believe. With layers of story built up over centuries and mixed agendas by those writing those stories, the true intention of a religious practice may have been lost. City of Stairs stresses how vital it is to understand those who are different to us. Knowledge may be power, but it can also be used to set us free. The real-world parallels are abundant. Whilst I didn’t fully enjoy City of Stairs it is a book that has resonated deeper than almost any other than I have read during 2014. Its splendours may be subtle but they burrow in, refusing to be dislodged. An important, thought-making work of speculative fiction.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

How to Make an American Quilt – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven proof.inddTake one large nation. Kill 99% of the population. Leave for twenty years. See what happens.

That’s essentially the premise of Station Eleven. As the fear factor surrounding the Ebola outbreak in Africa increases this may be the perfect time to read this book. Or perhaps the absolute worst time. Either way, the possibility of a global pandemic has never seemed more terrifying than it does now that I’ve finished this understated and emotive novel.

Emily St. John Mandel clearly subscribes to the ‘less is more’ approach to her storytelling. It’s hard to imagine a gentler, less sensational apocalypse. This is just about the quietest way possible to deal with the end of the world and it makes it terrifying, real and deeply moving.

Humanity is destroyed by Georgia Flu, a highly virulent strain that rushes through the world’s population killing all but 1% of it. We follow several survivors in a patchwork of stories that flit through time and location. Many of the narratives are linked. Some directly, some more oblique but they all offer up more information about the downfall of civilisation and humanity’s stuttering attempts to rise from the ashes. The whole time, as we read there is a nagging question – what is the significance of the graphic novel Station Eleven?

The book reminded me of Stephen Amsterdam’s Things we Didn’t See Coming, another quiet apocalypse tale. These books deal with the human side of things; the difficulty of living a normal life when no such thing exists. Realistic travails of survival, rather than overblown zombie attacks or crushing overlords setting up implausible living conditions. There were passages in this book, that made me weep. This is partly due to be being a parent. Nobody with children likes to imagine the destruction of humanity (well maybe just at bedtime), but the simplicity in which St John Mandel, describes the gradual decline and isolation is gut-wrenching.

If I have a small gripe about the novel, it’s I’m not sure that the backward state of the new America is realistic. But then what do I know? I just feel that whilst everybody may have been dead, the survivors would have lots of practical information accessible; how to generate electricity for example. If Faraday could do it in the early 1800s, I think some of the more upwardly mobile characters in the novel could have managed too. To be honest this was just a small question at the back of my mind, and is largely irrelevant to the quality of the story told. Whilst I might be able to argue that the rate of recovery would have been greater, it easy to see counter arguments to say that Station Eleven pitches it just right.

All in all this is very good read. There are few resolutions, which may frustrate some readers. Instead we have a snapshot of humanity in a state of flux. A disaster like this could feasibly be around the corner. Many of us will die, but humanity will find a way. Life often does. I imagine Emily St John Mandel’s depiction of how we made it would prove to be scarily prescient. This is a understated and beautiful study of humanity in crisis and a valuable addition to the genre.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Program 

Small is beautiful – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Miniaturist. Now I’ve read it, I’m still not quite sure what I got. It’s part gothic horror, part historical novel, part feminist treatise and all fragile beauty. Every page of the Miniaturist shimmers, its sparkling prose gently evoking seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s a period and setting I know little about, and was fascinated by the male dominated society ruled equally by the tyranny of a puritanical God and the slavish pursuit of the Guilder. I’m used to seeing Amsterdam as the banner of permissive society, yet in the seventeenth century, oppression was its watchword. Even the baking of gingerbread men was banned to prevent idolatry.

The novel opens (more or less) with Nella Oortman arriving on the doorstep of her husband’s house. Married in haste in the countryside, she has travelled alone to Amsterdam to take up residence in her marital home. Things don’t start well. Eighteen year old Nella sees little of her husband and is instead treated to the hostile disdain of her shrewish sister-in-law, Marin. The house is also occupied by two servants. Cornelia, a maid and orphan, bold and contemptuous, and Otto, a black man, not a slave, yet not free; purchased by Nella’s husband in Suriname. The husband, Johannes, is older; a wealthy business man, almost above the law. He has little time for Nella, and far from home, she feels isolated and alone. Johannes’s one gesture to his wife is to buy her an expensive replica of the house in which they live. Bored, with little to do, Nella sets about furnishing her new present. And that’s how she discovers the miniaturist.

The novel then switches into gothic horror mode. The miniaturist seems to have deep knowledge of Nella’s home, yet Nella knows nothing about the model builder other than that she is a woman.  The miniaturist seems to be able to preternaturally predict events that are yet to happen, making Nella paranoid she is being watched and observed. Things start to go wrong, tensions in the house gradually simmer towards boiling point and we are left to wonder if the miniaturist is predicting or causing the family’s problems.

All this time, secrets come tumbling from every wall. Nella is faced with problem after problem but she gains strength through every setback, gradually growing into the role as woman of the house. Her relationships with the other members of the house ebb and flow. Alliances are forged, broken and remade and with each pitfall Nella becomes stronger. The story plays out across the beautifully described back-drop of Amsterdam, a city of commerce and religious diffidence, ruled over by the powerful and feared Burgomeisters.

Amsterdam may be a city ruled by men, but The Miniaturist is centred around its women. There are five at the heart of the plot, and they are women out of time; progressive and independent. Questions of equality in marriage and in business permeate the story. The book may be set in the seventeenth century, but many of its attitudes survive today. The women here fight battles that should have been left behind centuries ago, but sadly still go on. Much of the novel is devoted to the idea of forging your own path, something women of the time were almost never able to do. Nearly every character is impeded by the social mores of the time. Nobody can truly be themselves.

The book also asks interesting questions about whether we are defined by our expectations.  Much mileage is gained in the plot by having people make assumptions about others. The whole question about whether the miniaturist is clairvoyant boils down to whether humans see what they want to see, rather than what is there. Is the miniaturist a wielder of magic or simply a closer observer of human nature? We all telegraph our aspirations and attitudes on to others, and Burton illustrates this with mesmerising effect.

My initial reaction to reading the Miniaturist was one of slight disappointment, mainly because the novel didn’t go where I expected it to. Instead Burton constructed an altogether more subtle tale than the macabre gothic horror I’d anticipated. She has a created a story that lingers in the mind.  One of fractured connections and shattered dreams. The Miniaturist is a very interesting début, that should appeal to many readers. With memorable characters and evocative settings, it is a book that demands you keep reading. If you’re looking something fresh, without being too out there, The Miniaturist should appeal, no matter what your usual fare.