Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for an Extraordinary Event - Nicola Pugliese
Meandering Italian magic-realism about a supernaturally intense, seemingly endless rainstorm. There's some amazing imagery here - drenched buildings crumbling like wet cardboard; coins singing to young girls. But in between these points, it's all foggy and directionless - snatched glimpses of people without motivation, caught in cycles of ennui. Maybe it's the translation, but the language is something of a dense thicket: there's a lot that needs to be hacked through, but isn't sharp enough to be worth the effort. It's difficult to make listlessness interesting, I'm not sure Pugliese manages it.
Perelandra - C.S. Lewis
The second part of Lewis' space trilogy, and a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve set on the planet Venus. When it's good it's fantastic: Lewis' merging of medieval theology with turn-of-the-century pulp science fiction leads to a bunch of weird and exciting worldbuilding. His Venus is vivid and admirably strange - vast inhabited lily-pads under a golden sky. His Satan is genuinely frightening. He can manage an action scene. But it's difficult to get over Lewis' hectoring evangelism: for all the wild imagination on display, Perelandra isn't subtle. And unlike when, for instance, Chesterton uses a thriller to mount a defence of Christianity, Lewis doesn't provide space for dissent, and regularly lets the plot grind to a halt for exegeses on the Book of Genesis or a meditations on biblical sin. The first in the trilogy, "Out of the Silent Planet", is much better.
That Hideous Strength - C.S. Lewis
The final book in Lewis' space trilogy. And again, Lewis' instinct towards polemic damages things (a lot of his politics are *uncomfortable*, to say the least). But this is such a weird, scruffy, fractured thing that it's hard not to have a good time. He's throwing everything into the pot here: social satire, Christian mysticism, SF dystopia, cosy intelligent animals, full-strength Arthuriana, campus comedy... It's tonally and structurally messy, but that's part of the joy of it. And as with Perelandra, his villains are remarkably well drawn: bland well-meaning bureaucrats twisted into madness.
The Star Diaries - Stanislaw Lem
Polish SF short stories, written between the 50s and 70s, about a hyperconfindent scientist adventurer, travelling between eccentric planets. The stories are comic, and structured like folk-tales. When they aren't fluffy and inconsequential, they're philosophically bleak (there's an impressively horrible bit about the fate of a missionary on a planet of kind and loving aliens). A mixed bag, but when it's good it's basically Calvino-in-space. The Cyberiad, by the same author, is similar but better - wittier and more inventive - though this may just be due to a superior translation.
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
I wrote about this on Facebook when I finished it, and still stand by what I said then ("350 pages of florid and blood-drenched prose poetry about cowboys, with one of the most unsettling endings I've ever encountered. I've no idea if I actually liked it, but I'm probably going to spend this afternoon feeling odd and disturbed and small, so presumably it succeeded at something. I'm very much into its many, many lyrical descriptions of the stars, though.") It seems to be structured around escalating walls of violence. As soon as you get desensitised, it intensifies. An impressive, horrifying piece of work, and one that feels like it takes physical effort to crawl through. Not for everyone, then, and very possibly not for me.
Leaving the Atocha Station - Ben Lerner
A twitchy, anxious thing. A graduate student wanders around Spain, lying compulsively to everyone he meets. He's either massively out of depth or suffering terribly from imposter syndrome. The novel is essentially plotless, but this only adds to its obsessive, self-examining discomfort. It's also really funny, in a dry, bleak sort of way. Really great stuff.
Winter - Ali Smith
An awkward family reunion in a cold, rambling house. The first sentence is a really excellent joke, and the first few pages that follow it are a joyous, musical flight of prose. What follows can feel slight, and works imperfectly (characters sometimes feel less like people than embodiments of political positions). But the slightness allows for a lightness and airy immediacy: there's something warm and redemptive among the punning, playful prose and sudden hallucinatory images.
The Accursed - Joyce Carol Oates
This is the good stuff. A sprawling gothic epic about a demon infestation in turn-of-the-century Princeton, it’s consistently propulsive and unnerving and magnificently written: deeply interested in the nature of history, in hypocrisy, in American racism. It’s also vibrant and grotesque, the precise nature of its supernatural horrors just out of reach. I’m going to have to become a full-strength Joyce Carol Oates fan (I’ve read a bunch of her short stories, they’re all great), which is an intimidating task, given how much she’s written.
Wonders will Never Cease - Robert Irwin
Literary fantasy poised exactly halfway between Borges and Moorcock. A picaresque journey through a meticulously researched Wars of the Roses (almost all of the characters were actual historical figures). There's a lot of tricksy postmodern fun with the nature of narrative, and an entertainingly genre-savvy Thomas Malory, but this is more than just game-playing. Irwin's medieval England is convincingly alien, with all the expectedly murderous politicking and the protaganist's deadpan brutality. And it regularly swerves off into glorious flights of imagination, with grotesque magic rituals, deliberate anachronism, and bizarre hallucinatory passages.
Authority - Jeff Vandermeer
The second in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Not as good as the first volume, Annihilation, but then again what is? A sort of paranoid horror-parody of the espionage genre, with the grey offices of a clandestine organisation as a haunted house. The book is at its best when digging into all the sticky ambiguities of surveillance and mind control. The setpieces are effective and arresting, but between them the book can ramble a bit - it misses Annihilation's lean tautness, and it definitely feels like it is enjoying its own obliqueness.
Jacob's Room is Full of Books - Susan Hill
The first non-fiction I read this year. Framed as a a reminiscence into a year of the author's reading, this is actually much less focused: a loose, diaristic account of the author's passing thoughts. At its best, it's warm and perceptive, eloquently enthusiastic about the books its writer loves (and I'm grateful for it reminding me that I needed to go back and read more Raymond Chandler). But it is extremely slight, and there's something faintly irritating about its wistful romanticisation of life in village England. It tastes Brexity.
Acceptance - Jeff Vandermeer
The final book in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, and probably the weakest, though there's still much to recommend it. It's more ambitious than its predecessors, jumping between viewpoints and time-periods, and as such it doesn't have as clear a hook as "expedition into mysterious and terrifying wilderness" or "intelligence agency HQ as haunted house". There's also the difficulty of trying to bring a defined conclusion to a trilogy that has always thrived on ambiguous, unknowable dread. Still, when it works, it really works - the story of a lighthouse keeper warping into something alien just before the landscape shifts into monstrousness is particularly good.
The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Argentinian fantasy from 1940. Recommended to me by a friend who said it felt like a Myst-style 1990s point-and-click adventure, and yes, it really does: all empty landscapes, ambiguous architecture, and a haunted island that is also a puzzle to be solved. The "twist" is obvious to anyone familiar with the last 80 years of speculative fiction, and there's some frustratingly slow passages as the protagonist struggles to work out stuff that will be clear to most readers, but once the true nature of its setting is revealed, the book flowers out into something wonderfully strange and anxious.
Leviathan - Paul Auster
Auster plays his hits: clean, cool prose; the lives of refined and well-read men crumbling into madness; wild coincidences; strident and principled American liberalism; moonlit, off-kilter cities. I like Auster a lot, and if this isn't necessarily the place to start (The New York Trilogy and The Brooklyn Follies are both better) this is a pretty good example of his strengths. There are, shall we say, *problems* with its depiction of women. It occasionally feels like a parody of a Great Male Novelist obsessing over female bodies - and while I did wonder if this was a satire, or a deliberately foregrounded part of the protaginist's psychology, I'm not sure there's enough data there to give it the benefit of the doubt. For the most part, though, this is intense, thoughtful and moody stuff.
Inverted World - Christopher Priest
If you get the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition of this, for god's sake don't read the blurb. Tear the back cover off if you have to. Not only does it spoil an extremely spoilable plot, but it sets up expectations which the book isn't even interested in fulfilling. A shame - because this is an excellent novel, and doesn't deserve to be broken by bad marketing. It's extremely high-quality Science Fiction, taking bizarre, head-spinning concepts from maths and physics, and applying them rigorously to a society and a set of characters. We start with a young man being accepted into one of the ruling guilds of a strange, cobbled-together city where none of the inhabitants are allowed to see outside. The novel then spirals out into a sort of warped bildungsroman marked by war, colonialism and political upheaval, while still juggling all sorts of gloriously high concepts in clean, measured prose. I'm not sure the ending really works - it feels like we're being set up for a big-twist revelation that never comes - but the journey is spectacular.
Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
I don't often read crime, mostly because I'm not very interested in plot. And Chandler *wants* you to be interested in plot - the way the threads of the novel elegantly combine, the way information is deferred or characters enter and re-enter the narrative like expertly timed punctuation. It's all very admirable. But the reason to read Chandler is the prose - his showy, hardboiled noir style is often parodied, but only because it's so distinctive. It's magnificently satisfying - like taking a warm bath of vivid cynicism. He's also *extremely* good at dialogue, cinematic and sparkling.
Under the Jaguar Sun - Italo Calvino
You know what's good? Reading Calvino at midnight, in a faintly scuzzy takeaway pizza shop, just off an absurdly beautiful Venetian street. This is an unfinished book - Calvino died while writing it, so what you get is three short stories, each based on one of the five senses: a king with supernaturally powerful hearing listening out for signs of revolution; a pair of gourmets eating their way through Mexico and beginning to flirt with cannibalism; three men from different points in history searching for women by using their sense of smell. As ever with Calvino, he's walking a tightrope between a schematic, formal rigour and wild unmoored fantasy, and he does sometimes fall off: there is the occasional sense that the book is more interested in playing games with itself than anything else. It's often great, though: playful and ambitious, gracefully spinning across strange and heady ideas.
The Fifth head of Cerberus - Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe wrote some of best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the 20th Century. His 'Book of the New Sun' quartet is a sprawling, phastasmagorical masterpiece: a propulsive quest-narrative, but also capital-L Literature, fascinated with unreliable narrators, the nature of translation, with the slippage between symbolism and literalism. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is nowhere near as good - but it is an interesting curiosity. It contains three linked novellas, each set on a planet of shapeshifting aliens long ago colonised by humans: the central mystery of the book is whether the colonisers wiped out the natives, or the natives wiped out the colonisers, shapeshifting and taking their form. The first novella is superb, set in a gothic establishment that is part brothel, part science-lab in a New-Orleans-style spaceport: it's somber, disturbing and plays dizzying tricks with time and identity. The novellas that follow, though, are disappointing: extremely oblique, delighted with their own obscurity, and more interested in playing games with themselves than anything else. There's also something uncomfortable about how the book uses colonialism as a backdrop but barely engages with it politically.
Espedair Street - Iain Banks
A reclusive rock star looks back over his life. It's propulsive, compulsive stuff. The sections about the protagonist's life as a music-obsessive in a deprived area of Paisley are very strong, as are the sections where he is older, living alone in a disused church, concealing his famous past from his drinking buddies. The depiction of his years of fame are weaker - curiously untextured, passing smoothly by like a magazine profile. It's a *blokey* book: full of booze, and fistfights, and nerdery about the minutiae of 1970s progressive rock, and underwritten female characters. But I had fun with it.
Fen - Daisy Johnson
It feels odd to put down my thoughts on a book written by someone I know. Thankfully Fen is *extremely* good - it's a series of tactile, painful fantasy stories set around the East Anglian fens. The prose is startling and immediate. And although the stories run on the slippery logic of folk tales and dreams, they have a sensory and psychological intensity that ensures they never risk feeling arbitrary or distant. Some of the concepts for the stories sound as if they would serve as clear-cut allegories - for obsessive love, for eating disorders, for the fear of motherhood - but in practice they are so vividly written that these direct correspondences fall away, and the stories stand only for themselves. An unreserved recommendation.
Dinner - Moira Buffini
Does the script for a play I was in count as a book I read this year? Yeah, it probably does. It's basically An Inspector Calls with swearing - a twitchily repressed upper-middle class group gather for a dinner party, a mysterious outsider arrives, surfaces are cracked, chaos ensues, something ambiguously supernatural - or at the very least grotesque - is unleashed. It's essentially a comedy, even if it's a particularly spiky and dark one. The jokes land. And when it wants to swerve into new tones, that works too - it's quite happy to be uncomfortable for long stretches, or horrifying for short ones. You're essentially spending time with characters without any verbal filters: it's not long before everyone is vocalising their least publicly appropriate thoughts. The way it shifts tones, or wheels freely from subplot to subplot, isn't to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the chaos.
Folk - Zoe Gilbert
A satisfying mirror to Fen, which I'd read immediately beforehand, this is also a collection of folklore-ish short stories linked by a common location: in this case a fictional British island in an unspecified pre-modern past. Some of these stories are about how life on the island is mediated through tradition and ritual, like a more compassionate, less murdery version of The Wicker Man. Some of them are explicitly fantasy stories that run on folktale logic and contain supernatural transformations. Often they slip between the two modes, looking at the effects of fantastical on a small, close-knit community. And it works hard to generate a sense of a community - characters and their family members reappearing from story to story, or the plots of some stories being visible from the corners of others. But when it's at its best it pulls of a *really* impressive trick: taking stories with the straight, tropey bones of folk-tales, telling them simply, but making them absolutely gripping.
The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson
Jackson is best known as a horror writer, but for the most part, these aren't horror stories: they're small, sharp-edged character studies. Her work in supernatural horror serves her well, though. Even when depicting nothing more unpleasant than an awkward social interaction, these stories contain a raw, jagged nub of dread. And when they do choose to slip away from the purely realistic, they do so with such a quiet precision that you barely notice the shift. The title story is by far the most famous in the collection, but it relies on a twist that has by now been thoroughly spoiled by pop culture. Far stronger is "The Renegade", about a housewife who hears her dog has been killing chickens, and discovers that her neighbours now expect her to put it down: it's hard to explain how it manages to generate such a thick, unyielding sense of wrongness.
Kindred - Octavia Butler
Involuntary, unexplained time travel repeatedly sends a modern African-American woman to a nineteenth century plantation. It uses all the conventions of the cosy timeslip novel, and turns them brutal. Despite the harrowing subject matter it reads very quickly and smoothly. Which isn't to say it takes its subject lightly: it's extremely good at the psychology of slavery - the way that a constant atmosphere of violence and degradation can warp and break a mind, how being surrounded by dehumanisation changes both slaves and slaveowners.
Wise Children - Angela Carter
A box of pyrotechnics - sometimes dazzling, sometimes exhausting, often both. It's the story of twin sisters - music hall performers in a family of actors - and it is rich with the messy texture of the theatrical world: tawdry and grotesque and pompous, but also full of grandeur and delight. It's full of flash: bursts of surrealism, all sorts of intertextual play with Shakespeare, bawdy set pieces, constantly surprising language. It's a book about the joy of perfomance, and it demonstrates this by being a joyful performance. But it does feel like the sort of book that'll give you a hangover.
SPQR - Mary Beard
I'm really bad at reading history. I lose concentration, and what I've read tends to slip out of my head only moments after it goes in. I didn't have any problems, though, with this. Beard is so fascinated by the Romans, and so enthusiastic about sharing this fascination, that not a page of this is dry. Even when its plunging deep into the academic detail of *how* we know what we know, it's fascinating. And whenever it debunks fun myths about the Romans (several of the emperors probably weren't as debauched as they were made out to be), it usually replaces them with something much stranger. It's a book full of stories, mapping an alien world.
The Dispossessed - Ursula K Le Guin
Le Guin's work is extremely sensitive to the way environment affects society and the way society shapes people - these instincts found in the smallest details of The Dispossessed: see, for instance, the way a man from a planet without any animals large enough to farm is disturbed by the sight of a leather chair. The plot of this book should be schematic, didactic - a scientist from a planet with an anarchist collective government visits a planet governed by capitalist nation states. It's a book designed less for narrative than to explore structures for organising societies. But the sense of place is so rich, detailed and convincing that this feels less like a thought experiment and more like a journey through real worlds. The last ten pages, especially, are wonderful.
All the Devils are here - David Seabrook
An odd, disturbing work of non-fiction. Seabrook meanders between various decaying coastal towns in Kent, telling stories from their histories: of grubby sex and desperate tourist attractions, of murderers, madmen, and cells of fascist sympathisers. There's a strange sense that Seabrook is *involved* somehow, that all the weight of history has affected and interacted with him in some ill-defined way. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's fascinating. But by the end, this seems less like a travel book, or a history book, than a seedy, unsettled dream.
Paper Girls Vol 1 - Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
A comic - a group of teenage girls in the 1980s end up caught in the middle of a bizarre, science-fictional war. It's super-light - zapping from setpiece to setpiece in a comfortably nostalgic US town: I reckon I ran through the whole thing in less than an hour, and I wasn't deliberately rushing it. But if you're comfortable with the lack of substance, it does what it sets out to do - clarifying its (witty, likeable) characters quickly. It's at its best when exploding with gonzo visual weirdness, which it does regularly. Its opening - a depiction of a nightmare, is funny and horrible and particularly strong.
The Invisibles Vol 1: Say You Want a Revolution - Grant Morrison
Another comic, and one that hasn't aged well. Where there's a plot (and for the most part it's hardly relevant), it involves a teenage delinquent joining a gang of counter-cultural occultists, who are working to free the world from the controlling forces of order. The comic is straining with all its might to let you know that it's Not For Kids - full of weird sex, weird violence, weird drugs, and continually dropping clanging literary references. It's a callous book, and I suspect its love of conspiracy theory feels far more tiresome now than it did on its publication 20 years ago. But look - it's not boring. There's plenty of flashy, striking images, and unpredictable (if often incoherent) turns in the plotting. Just don't expect to come out feeling satisfied.
Red Thread - Charlotte Higgins
A history of mazes. Or at least, it's a history of mazes *most* of the time. It keeps running off into areas barely relevant to mazes - snatches of art history, classical literature, autobiography, occasional experiments with style and genre. It is - aha! - structured like a maze. Which is almost a shame, because the sections directly about mazes are usually the best. But as long as you're willing to surrender to the author's whims, the whole thing is engrossing.
Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco
The weirdest thing about Foucault's Pendulum is that it feels like an erudite literary parody of a type of pulp that didn't start until years after its release: there's a weird resemblance to all those thrillers about academics uncovering dangerous conspiracies using historical books and artefacts (the National Treasure films, the Broken Sword videogames, the collected works of Dan Brown). And this makes sense: beneath the sprawl and learning and thick layers of ironic distance, there's a damn good adventure story hiding in here, about small-time publishers caught in a cult's search for an (imaginary?) templar superweapon. It's the part of the book that's most tempting to imitate. But describing the plot doesn't give you much sense of what it feels like to read Foucault's pendulum - it's a dusty book, interested mostly in other books. It seems to encourage scan-reading - large passages describe dry swathes of history, with the joke being how irrelevant they are. And its most successful features spark off in all sorts of unexpected directions: a very funny parody of the vanity publishing industry, a playful section about the the (then-new) concept of the word processor, an atmosphere of post-war Italian political melancholy, vague hints of the supernatural peeking around the corners...
Benighted - J.B. Priestley
My god this is an amazing book, and somehow almost completely forgotten. If you take anything from my pointless quest to record everything I read this year, it's that you should hunt this down. The plot is generic - travellers driving through a rainstorm are unable to continue, and take refuge in an old, dark house. But the execution is perfect: unnerving, surprisingly compassionate, and with the best descriptions of weather you can get outside of Dickens. The structure may be pulpy, but its depiction of flawed, decent people, haunted by their pasts and grasping for solace in the darkness, is properly moving. The only Priestley I knew was An Inspector Calls. This is far beyond that.
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
After Benighted, I felt the need to see if I had any other haunted house stuff lying about - and this, too, was superb. Like Benighted, the plot is generic: an academic pays some young, potentially psychic volunteers to stay in a notoriously haunted mansion for a month. But what follows is extremely unnerving - Jackson is very good at creating a threatening environment - subtly diseased architecture and decor, full of malicious intent. She's also excellent at creating affectionate camaraderie between her characters and then subjecting them to slow, paranoid degradation: it's a book that weaponises its own warmth.
Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie
Two British Muslim sisters, living with the knowledge that their father was a Jihadi and their brother has followed in his footsteps. This sort of plainly told realism is (as you can probably tell by now) a fair way out of my wheelhouse, and I struggled a bit with the prosaic domesticity of the book's earliest sections (very much my fault not the novel's). But the thing that shone through was how extraordinarily empathetic it was towards everyone the narrative touches, no matter how appalling their decisions or actions have been.
Everything Under - Daisy Johnson
So many of the canonical Oxford Novels follow children, or childlike characters, leaving mundane worlds, and entering magical otherworlds with limited access points, isolated from their previous lives, learning the rules and languages of their new environments and facing risks they couldn't previously imagine. Think of Lewis, Pullman, Tolkein, Carroll. Something that seems under-discussed about Everything Under is the way that it's a dark mirror to this sort of story. It's an Oxford novel - the city is named, but its urban centre is ghostly, barely described. Far more vivid is the otherworld that surrounds it - the rotting, isolated canals, infected by prophecies, monsters and violence, and shunning the rules that bind the rest of civilisation together. And much of the plot revolves around a child who escapes mundanity and enters this magical otherworld, becoming bound by the rules of myth. Here, though, the otherworld is shallow, damaging, and only half remembered. The monsters might not even be real, and the grand demands of myth may be nothing more than empty acts of violence. This is a shadowy novel, full of unreliable memories and shifting identities. It's a book where people use stories to structure lives which won't ever make easy sense.
Flights - Olga Tokarczuk
A Polish novel - if novel is the right word. Flights is a series of vignettes: short stories, philosophical musings, historical anecdotes, scraps of writing that glide between all three categories, delighting in blurring the boundary between fact and fiction. The vignettes circle two themes: travel, and anatomy - especially when anatomy involves preserving and examining human remains. It is all beautifully written - even when it's hard to pull the threads together, or work out what the author is trying to achieve, you can bask in the glow of the language. The lack of a clear throughline and the profusion of ideas and images mean that even though I finished the book relatively recently, I don't have a clear memory of the whole thing. But images and conversations I've encountered in everday life keep striking up memories of scenes from the book with unusual frequency.
Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft
Pulp, and perfectly serviceable pulp. A mild-mannered school teacher goes on his honeymoon to the Tower of Babel (linked only to the mythical tower only in that it is tall, and full of sinful people). He loses his wife in the crowds, and must climb through the various dangerous civilizations that live in the tower in order to find her, having picaresque adventures along the way. It's the first book in a trilogy, so don't expect an ending. And although I had moderate amounts of fun, I probably won't be going to the sequels. There's an enjoyable aesthetic - a sort of Edwardian steampunk in a vast, ancient structure in the desert. The characters are charming and the action scenes are efficient. But despite all the surface flash, it felt rather plodding - you could feel the narrative machinery heaving itself into place before each plot turn or setpiece.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing - Eimear McBride
Well this is upsetting and intense. It's also very, very good. It's about a girl growing up in Ireland with a brain-damaged brother, an unstable mother and a predatory uncle. It's written in fragmented, half-formed, ungrammatical sentences: this is proper modernist stream-of-consciousness stuff, and unapologetically difficult to parse. Once you tune into its wavelength, though, all this smashed-up language pulls you extremely close to the narrator's self-destructive psychology. For an experimental novel, it's surprisingly plotty - structurally, there's a straightforward (if unflinchingly emotionally brutal) book in here.
Roadside Picnic - Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Russian science fiction novel: the earth has been subject to a mysterious alien visitation, leaving a number of dangerous areas known as "zones" where the laws of nature no longer apply. Governments attempt to seal these zones off, studying and exploiting them, but mercenaries sneak in, brave the dangers, and steal alien artefacts for a thriving black market. Really, this seems more important for the stuff it influenced than for itself: the 1979 film adaptation, Stalker, is a much more sophisticated work, and I doubt Vandermeer's Annihilation could exist without Roadside Picnic's surreal, unknowable, somehow *conscious* wilderness. There are times when this book feels inert, and no more than functionally written. But there's a rich soup of sinister, cynical ideas in here. I also really like the title - it's evocative out of context, and frightening when explained.
The Death of King Arthur - Simon Armitage
A book-length poem from around 1400, translated into modern english. And if you want exciting descriptions of medieval battles, you're in luck: much of the book feels like a catalogue of all the cool ways you can describe someone hitting someone else with a sword. The book's main pleasure is its kinetic bloodshed: this is Arthur as a pragmatic general - we're told he's a good king, but most of what we see is him arriving in other countries and smashing them up. It's a version of the story without any of the courtly romance, folktale structures, or weird medieval Christianity that gets associated with Arthuriana, and instead replaces them with realpolitik and military tactics. There's no real interest in myth or psychology here, although Arthur's final farewell to Guinevere is poignant and understated, and there are some pleasantly grotesque dream scenes. I enjoyed it, but found it best to read in ten page bursts. Much more than that and the endless combat could become soporific and I would lose my ability to feel the impact and excitement of the language.
White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi
Another haunted house - this time a boarding house in Dover, where strange, slippery things are happening. The first two thirds of the book are setup - bouncing between various points of view, slowly constructing its characters, the plotting vague and dreamlike. For most of the book, it's ambiguous whether genuinely supernatural events are occurring, or if we're watching the messy perceptions of disordered minds (almost all of the characters are grieving, two of them have been diagnosed with perception-altering mental illnesses, another spends much of the time stoned). It's comfortably readable, and magnificently well written, but it feels a little like its caught in a holding pattern. But then the final third of the novel snaps into focus - the pace rockets, the threats close in and become frightening, characters start bouncing against each other in charged, unexpected ways. It also reveals itself as an urgently political book - a smart, unsettling allegory, sharpening and repurposing the tropes of the English ghost story.
Lost Horizon - James Hilton
Popular fiction from 1933, and the novel that invented the idea of Shangri-La. A group of mismatched Westerners have their plane hijacked, and are brought to an isolated monastery in the Himalayan mountains. It's a fascinating reflection of its historical moment, suffused by a sort of weary, pre-apocalyptic melancholy: the hangover from the first world war, the shadow of another war approaching, the fading of the British Empire. And yes, given that it is a book by a comfortably well-off white british author writing in the 1930s about English imperial functionaries in Asia, its politics have aged badly. It also feels brief to the point of inconsequentiality - the ideas and narrative vanishing at the exact point they arrived. But it's a strangely effective book: an eerie vision of someone else's idea of utopia, a book about the transitory nature of peace and the inevitability of loss.
Dark Entries - Robert Aickman
A collection of six ghost stories. Or is it? Aickman is undeniably working within the tradition of the ghost story - vaguely fusty middle-class English people stumbling outside the confines of their predictable, material lives and being confronted with horrifying supernatural dangers. But the things they encounter are always much stranger, much harder to explain than mere ghosts. The reader always feels as if they have enough clues to unlock what the stories mean, what the characters are experiencing, but the answers are always *just* out of reach. Aickman is a master of the accumulation of detail - before the true horrors break out, slight elements (the size of the furniture, the pattern in a carpet, an incongruous photograph) begin to hint at (explain?) the oddness that follows. He's also an astute psychologist - even as the stories lurch into nightmare, the characters remain grounded and understandable. This is the third Aickman collection that I've read - they're all great, but I enjoyed this one the most. Not necessarily because it's the best - possibly because the sheer oddness of his work requires some getting used to. By now I'm happily speaking his language.
A Burglar's Guide to the City - Geoff Manaugh
Non-fiction about architecture, city planning, and burglary. It's full of amazing anecdotes: it turns out that absurd, movie-style heists are a real thing. The central conceit of the book - that studying burglars and the people who work to stop them reveals all sorts of information about how cities work - is an appealing and convincing one. And I was always comfortable when the book went off on eccentric tangents, about communities of lockpicking enthusiasts, or surreal "urban survival" courses given to travelling businessmen by ex-marines. It's an overwritten book - it works extremely hard to make you care about stuff that would already interesting without the flash. But it's enjoyable and informative, and dozens of the stories it tells would make excellent films: I'm very much in favour of seeing a biopic of the rogue 19th Century architect who dressed his gang in elaborate opera costumes and built replica bank vaults in vast warehouses on the New York City Docks in order to practice his Ocean's Eleven-style scores .
The Hell-Fire Clubs - Evelyn Lord
A history of the secretive 18th Century clubs where aristocratic men were rumoured to partake in devil worship and debauchery. As is so often the case, the rumours are more fun than the likely truth: it seems the stories of satanism and dark rituals were overplayed - the clubs were much more of an excuse for the privileged classes to indulge in drink, sex, and fancy dress behind closed doors. Which does make the book a slightly repetitive account of wealthy people behaving predictably badly. But it's well-written, goes down smoothly, and does provide a clear window into a time I know very litte about.
The first fourteen of the "Penguin Moderns" series
Penguin released a set of 50 miniature books this year (each a6 sized and only around 60 pages along) showcasing various writers from its Modern Classics range. In each, you will maybe get a few short stories, or some poems, or some essays. I bought the full set and have been slowly working my way through them. It's been great - chances to see stuff from people I hadn't read before: Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail is astoundingly good, and this has been the first time I've read any Jean Rhys, Dorothy Parker or Danilo Kis, all of whom I'm sure I'll go back to. There's also interesting selections from writers I was more familiar with (Orwell, Lem, a fascinatingly odd Du Maurier story). Obviously I didn't enjoy everything: this was further confirmation that I don't like Kafka, and I don't understand at all what Gertrude Stein was doing in the extract from Tender Buttons. But the books are always brief enough to be interesting before they disappear. The highlight so far was the Ralph Ellison story "In a Strange Country", in which a black american soldier stationed in the UK, encounters a welsh voice choir. It's probably the best piece of writing about folk music I've ever seen - profound and moving and beautiful, and deeply interested in all the knotty ways that music interacts with nation and community.
Human Acts - Han Kang
Han Kang's The Vegetarian is one of the best books I've read in the last five years: a nasty, upsetting, beautiful and ruthlessly efficient novel. Human Acts isn't in the same league, but it's successful in achieving its own names. It's about the Gwangju Uprising, a civilian massacre that occurred in South Korea in 1980. Each of its chapters focuses on a different victim of the massacre: survivors, demonstrators tortured by the government, or in one case the souls of the dead. It's pretty unrelenting: as it flickers between the day of the massacre and its aftermath in years and decades that follow, it overflows with physical and psychological pain, and fixes an unblinking eye on mountains of decaying corpses. Some sections work better than others, but as a memorial to a tradedy, or a journalistic record of an atrocity, this is a very effective novel.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie
A quick note that there's some stuff here that you might consider spoilers - and this is an *extremely* spoilable book. I'm not going to explicitly give away the ending, but I'll say some things that makes the ending easier to guess. Anyway - given that I'm marrying a Poirot obsessive next year, I thought it was a good idea to try Christie out. And I can see the appeal: she's got the knack that most decent pulp writers have for making stock characters vivid. She can generate tension when she wants to, and propels her plot at speed. Her dialogue is sharp and smart - she's particularly good at characters being rude to each other. But for most of its length, this book doing something I fundamentally don't care about: it's a game as much as a novel, carefully laying out its clues and witness statements. It provides maps of locations, or tables of everyone's stated alibis. The whole novel is a well oiled logic puzzle that asks the reader to play along. This isn't an excercise I really enjoy engaging in: to me it feels rather dry and mechanical, though I can see why other readers find it fun. And yet - the last thirty pages are *superbly* managed. It's nice to experience a famously great twist without it being spoiled in advance. I'm not into the procedural drudgework of detection, but I'm *extremely* into the rug being pulled and discovering that I'm reading a piece of devious and formally playful metafiction, especially given that the book has been sneakily hinting at this all along.
The Book of Evidence - John Banville
A wealthy, middle-aged man who senselessly murdered a woman during a botched and underrmotivated robbery looks back over the previous few months of his life from the perspective of his prison cell. He's endlessly self-obsessed, self-justifying and self-pitying, at once attempting to explain his actions and claim a deep, unconvicing guilt for them. It's a dense novel - every page is thick with striking turns of phrase, surprising word choices, precise images and odd, angular thoughts. Sometimes this is invigorating, sometimes it's exhausting - especially given that the narrator is deliberately bad (if fascinating) company. It reminded me most of the bits of Nabokov I'd read - of the hyperverbal, deeply untrustworthy narrators of Pale Fire and Lolita.
Snow White - Donald Barthelme
Snow White lives with seven men who spend their days washing the walls of their house and looking after dubious vats of chinese baby food. She used to sleep with them, it seems, but now she ignores them, knowing that psychologically and narratively she is missing a prince. This prince, Paul, mostly just sits in his bath and considers whether he should become a monk. Later, he builds a vast surveillance complex in a bunker outside Snow White's house. It seems to be wired up to some dogs. So yes, this is absurd 1960s postmodernism, riffing on the fairy tale (or, more often, the disney film) like a wild electric jazz solo. If you ignore the fact that it barely makes sense, and appreciate its non-sequiturs, formal playfulness and stupid jokes, it's quite good fun. A minor work, though, from Barthelme, whose similarly absurd novel The King is one of the great works of 20th Century Arthuriana, and whose short story "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" is one of the smartest, funniest, and nastiest things I've ever read about the psychology of being in a close-knit group of friends.
The Cricket on the Hearth - Charles Dickens
The third of Dickens’ annual Christmas Books, and there’s a bunch of reasons why it’s fairly obscure: it’s full of all the elements that have aged worst about his writing - an excess of sentimentality and melodrama, occasional tweeness, and irritatingly perfect young women. But weak Dickens is still Dickens: there are still magnificent flights of rhetoric, excellent jokes, a thunderously evocative sense of place, and precisely drawn grotesques. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that there’s a load of his big, important books that I still haven’t read.