It's that time again! Yep, time to dredge up my literary favourites from the last year from the dark recesses of my memory. As ever, these are books I read in 2010, not books that were published in 2010 - being a cheapskate I very rarely buy new books :-)
I re-read a few old favourites this year, mostly for the SFX Book Club. I reviewed a few of those and some appeared in the Book Club section in the pages of SFX itself, as well as this 'ere blog:
Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Lord Of Light by Roger Zelazny
I also re-read
The Fountains Of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.
Probably Clarke's last great novel, Fountains is a fascinating account of the building of a great space-elevator, situated on a fictionalised version of Sri Lanka, known as Taprobane. As well as the thrilling adventures of Clarke's archetypal science-hero, Vannevar Morgan, the story also flashes back hundreds of years through the history of the island's kings and religious leaders, giving us the other element that often balances out Arthur C.'s science: mysticism. Good, old-fashioned SF fun.
I also delved back into my collection for.....
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
This was a novel I'd only read once, over 20( ! ) years ago, and had always promised myself I would read again. ( The SFX Book Club gave me that excuse..... but I missed the deadline by one day. Prat. ) Anyway, Holdstock's earthy but enchanting fantasy proved to be just as exciting, page-turning and romantic as I remembered it to be. And the last page still makes me cry. I'm not really a great fantasy fan, especially in these days when bookshops are seemingly full of bloated, sub-Tolkien trilogies, but Holdstock mines a deep, rich seam of myths and archetypes here, and his creation of the "mythago" is surely one of the great genre inventions of recent times.
To move on to new ( to me ) books I discovered a whole new science fiction universe in:
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
A dizzying plunge into adventure and Big SF Concepts, I reviewed it here, and recommend it for a glimpse into a universe almost as compelling as that of The Culture.
And, heading into the mainstream ( whatever that is ) we come to:
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
This sombre romance of the American Civil War swept me along in its vivid evocation of love, loss and longing in desperate times. The story alternates between the twin narratives of the deserter Inman's long road home from the war, and his sweetheart Ada's attempts to keep herself and her farm going whilst enduring grinding poverty. Not exactly a barrel of laughs but totally convincing in its nineteenth-century milieu, with some hauntingly beautiful passages describing the landscapes and seasons of the Old South. ( I couldn't get The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down out of my head as I read this book..... )
A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes
A funny but philosophical collection of stories and essays on the subjects of history, love, loss, evolution and religion. Recurring motifs of shipwrecks, voyages and floods flow through the book as Barnes' sly, witty voice reflects on the triumphs and follies of mankind, and tells some good jokes in the process.
Death In Venice by Thomas Mann.
Probably the book that disappointed me the most this year. I knew that the story itself was slight - author hangs around Venice, obsesses about a young boy, reflects on his life, sickens and dies - but I had expected something more. It is obviously well-written
( or well-translated ) but the classical allusions are mostly lost on me and I found it all a bit cold and uninvolving.
For a total change of pace:
The Penguin Book Of Modern Humour ( ed. Alan Coren )
A wide-ranging 1982 collection of humorous short stories and novel extracts, from the savage wit of Clive James and S.J. Perelman, through the absurdities of Woody Allen and Joseph Heller, to the perfectly-constructed vignettes of Damon Runyan and Ring Lardner. More hits than misses and an introduction to many authors I'd never read before.
Some non-fiction to finish:
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Often seen as the first great non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood is Capote's unflinching look at the infamous 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas and the subsequent capture, trial and executions of the murderers. The insight into the senseless murders and the sad, pathetic lives of the killers themselves is grim, but compelling, reading. I don't go in for "True Crime" books, as they usually seem squalid and sensationalising, but Capote's firm style and detailed knowledge of the case ( as well as the book's reputation ) made this an exception. It was worth reading, but hardly "enjoyable" and I'll probably never read it again.....
Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus
Baffling but brilliant, this is Marcus' treatise on Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, a collection of rough 'n' ready hymns to the "old, weird America" that the modern world was steadily eroding. Using Dylan's oblique, bawdy and hilarious songs as a springboard, Marcus shoots off at tangents to discuss American history, culture and myths, in a dense and challenging book that I'll have to revisit again and again to fully understand.
Bill Hicks - Love All The People
This seemingly un-authored book ( not even an editor is credited ) is a collection of stand-up routines, letters and prose by the late, great, sadly-missed Bill Hicks. Although repetitive ( we see the evolution of Hicks' routines, so many lines are repeated ) this book is a treasure-trove of iconoclastic, scabrous humour. Bill Hicks was one of the most challenging, angry and troubled comedians of his day, but also one whose love for the human race equalled his hatred for their "leaders". He was on a mission of enlightenment and didn't mind if he pissed a few people off in the process. And he did. Gloriously.
"I am a misanthropic humanist. It's a weird conflict when you are your own bete-noire. Do I like people? They're great in theory."
I'm currently reading
The Steep Approach To Garbadale by Iain Banks
Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
Phew! That's all for now.....