Stuff I've read this year: fiction

The first of a few posts on stuff I’ve read this year. That I wrote down and can remember, anyway.

This year I read way more fiction than I have in years. Quite a random bag, though with definite leanings to Sf and fantasy. Next year I need to flush some lit fic through the system.

In no particular order:

Guilty Pleasures by Laurel K Hamilton.
Thought I should read one of these modern vampire fantasy pr0n things. It was trash, which was kind of what I expected.

The Sheep Look Up – John Brunner.
Deservedly classic SF novel from the 70s, set in a future where the environment is collapsing around a complex modern society locked into corruption and capitalism. The story follows the year the system comes apart. Brilliant, prescient, and a massive downer. Uncomfortably contemporary. Well worth reading.

Ombria in Shadow – Patricia McKillip
A lovely dreamy rich and lush fantasy. Familiar tropes twisted in delightful ways. Something Miyazaki should adapt. Winner of the World Fantasy Award. McKillip does the kind of fantasy not enough people do. It is all about the feel. Magical. Either your kind of thing or not.

Bridge of Birds: A novel of an ancient China that never was – Barry Hughart.
Utterly delightful and unreasonably entertaining. Too clever by half. Immensely pleasurable and satisfying. Recommended. Another WFA winner.

The Judging Eye – R Scott Bakker
Start of a new trilogy following on from The Prince of Nothing (the first volume of which, The Darkness Which Comes Before, is stunning, and was reviewed back here.) The trilogy was alright, but everything is less lustrous than the first. Anyway. Set 20 years later in the same world, not a lot happens, but it sets up a frustratingly wonderful and fascinating situation for the next book.

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
Reviewed in depth here. Utterly extraordinary and amazing novel.

The Book of the Thousand and One Nights (Vol 1). Various authors.

Amazing, both in terms of the quality of the stories (the tales are generally very entertaining, consistently one-up each other, and are often flat out jaw droppingly inventive) and for the window into Arabic culture it provides. At a cursory glance, in the Arabian nights, women are presented basically either a) faithless whores who should justifiably be killed at the first glimpse of dalliance, or b) witches. Djinns are rife. And Allah is really, really all and everything, avowedly not a lip service deity.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Unexpectedly read this during a winter gale. I thought I’d read it a decade or so ago; turns out I hadn’t. It was funny, wise and bleak. If you haven’t read any Vonnegut, you really should. He is better than I remember, which is saying something.

Aegypt (or The Solitudes) by John Crowley.
Fucking incredible. Falls between the cracks of literature and fantasy to be its own damn genius thing. Book one of the Aegypt quartet; the last one was just released. He releases one every 8 years or so. I sort of suspect the whole quartet will be one of those defining works of modern literature, and that it will be worth the 20+ years incubation.

Aegypt manages to be a wonderfully observed, surprising novel, while fundamentally being an essay in the history of the development and nature of magical consciousness through the renaissance, and how that relates to the modern era. Or something. Stunningly serendipitiously up my alley, in any case.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.
Old school thriller styles. Tonnes of Thompson’s books have been filmed (The Grifters, The Getaway, Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280 (filmed as Clean Slate), and probably more) and I’d seen The Grifters, which was choice, but this was the first I’d read by him. It’s good. Not my usual fare but I wanted something intellectually lo-fi. Solid writing, of its time, but yeah, cool.

Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Modern SF. Set in Brazil over 3 time periods. Hip and modern but not detrimentally so. Tells a good tale with a strong dose of the weird. Makes the best use of the many worlds hypothesis of quantum physics in fiction that I have ever seen. Slow burning. Took about half the novel to drop the penny that shifted things into another gear.

Love and Sleep by John Crowley,

The second in the Aegypt quartet. So fucking good it blows my mind. The entire quartet is structured around the astrological houses. Totally different feel while working with the same themes. So smooth. Beautifully written.

The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson.
A novella? Alright but of its time and forgettable.

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Superb early influential fantasy. Extremely inventive, highly weird, really well written.

Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal.
An unfinished poetic mystical allegory, steeped in Gurdjieff’s teaching, and one of the direct inspirations for Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain. Fucking choice, but then I would think that – it is like a perfect geek synergy for me.

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Surprisingly interesting and cool, though part of it was the cultural artefact angle. A very religious book, to the extent that its notion of vampires makes no sense whatsoever outside of a deeply Christian world-view. Indeed, it is interesting how far the vampire thing has shifted. (Randomly, this interview with Robert Place has the most detailed background on the origins and evolution of the vampire in literature since the Romantics.)

The Physiognomy – Jeffrey Ford.
Interesting. Features a thoroughly unlikable, emotionally unstable protagonist who is addicted to a hallucinogenic drug, the effects of which seem real a certain proportion of the time. Consistently did things I didn’t expect. Ends up being a parable of sorts. World Fantasy Award winning novel.

Where I’m Calling From – New and Selected Stories – Raymond Carver
Short stories by one of the masters of the form. He is indeed really good. Stripped back and strangely menacing tales of ordinary life. Often nothing much is happening, but he mostly makes it work, unlike a lot of modern lit, where nothing much happens, and it is pointless.

Once in a blue moon – Magnus Mills.
Short, odd, light, stories. Unique but on the basis of this I don’t understand why he has a following.

Dust of Dreams – Steven Erikson.
Book 9 of the Malazan Books of the Fallen. Immense, desolate, dark.
This series got me reading epic fantasy again. It is the towering achievement in the genre of the last decade or so.

Next up: the nonfiction. Probably in a couple of posts.

2 Responses to “Stuff I've read this year: fiction”

  1.   Pearce
    December 17th, 2009 | 4:44 am

    When John Brunner died in 1995, his estate was valued at less than a thousand pounds. Given that he published well over a hundred novels (the rights to which were included in his estate) and was considered one of the most successful science fiction writers ever to come out of the UK, I think this is pretty sobering.

  2.   Vince
    December 31st, 2009 | 1:55 pm

    The Sirens of Titan is one of my favourite novels ever. I suppose that it CAN be rather bleak, especially when the ultimate purpose of all human history is finally revealed, but I guess that that’s something I like about Vonnegut. Yup, we all have a destiny. And just because it’s a destiny it doesn’t have to *mean* anything. And we just go on living because, well, because we do.

    I should give The Starmaker another go, my father always swore it was absolutely brilliant too. Sirius was certainly a great novel.

    My favourite 1000 nights and one is still Burton’s, especially with his footnotes. He’s one of those people I’ve long wanted to meet.