I’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.
There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.
So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.
So, here we go….
A beautiful novella from, and to an extent I think also about, the Bloomsbury set. The author, best known for this work (and for establishing the Nonesuch Press), turns his elegant writing and his earnest passion to a very simple, but unyielding, modern-day fairy tale (magic realism avant la lettre), in which an ordinary English country gentleman is somewhat surprised one day when his wife unexpectedly turns into a fox. A little liberal allegory of love, tolerance, madness, and the tyranny of society. [so very Bloomsbury: the illustrations are by the author’s wife, while the dedication is to the author’s gay lover.]
Wonderful or supernatural events are not so uncommon, rather they are irregular in their incidence. Thus there may be not one marvel to speak of in a century, and then often enough comes a plentiful crop of them; monsters of all sorts swarm suddenly upon the earth, comets blaze in the sky, eclipses frighten nature, meteors fall in rain, while mermaids and sirens beguile, and sea-serpents engulf every passing ship, and terrible cataclysms beset humanity.
But the strange event which I shall here relate came alone, unsupported, without companions into a hostile world, and for that very reason claimed little of the general attention of mankind. For the sudden changing of Mrs. Tebrick into a vixen is an established fact which we may attempt to account for as we will…
Roy’s first, and so far only, novel is a beautiful, agonising tragedy of love and social norms. Following the same character as an innocent child in southern India and, decades later, as a mentally scarred young woman returning to her childhood home for the first name, The God of Small Things flits from baroque elegy to childlike simplicity, and from the intimate to the social and political, constructing its own language of recurring symbols, phrases, metaphors, occasionally indulging in wry humour but never, never losing its drumbeat of impending doom.
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation…
Opening with an epigraph from an Aeschylean tragedy, Adams’ classic children’s tale of genocide, refugees, cultural decadence, sacrifice, tyranny, bunny rabbits and the modern security state may be a little dated in its dialogue here and there, and a tad old-fashioned in some of its assumptions, but its careful, sonorous prose remains as comfortable, and its gestures as powerful and resonant as they ever were; Watership Down may remain a formative text for generations of (mature) younger readers to come, and in no way fails to delight and reward the adult reader.
The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half-choked with king-cups, water-cress and blue brook-lime. The cart-track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the thorn hedge. The gate led into the lane…
Le Guin’s short, quiet, chilly masterpiece may be best remembered for its high concept – a world without gender, a world without war, a world consumed by eternal winter, a world of similar or lesser sophistication than our own visited by an interstellar emissary – but its greatest virtues lie in how all of that is reduced to the level of individuals. The sweeping novel, in few pages, addresses sociological, psychological, biological, economic and religious themes through personal journals and collected folk tales, within an atmosphere of continual political paranoia and against a backdrop of unforgiving ice. A novel that is less interested in moving the reader to heights of emotion in the moment, and more in leaving them a lingering, tantalising unease.
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story…
The exact ordering of the pantheon of great Discworld novels is endlessly debateable. Novels like Feet of Clay, and The Fifth Elephant might have made this list had they been written by some lesser-known author, and that is certainly true of his two consensus magna opera, Small Gods and Night Watch. My pick of the best, however, albeit by a very narrow margin, is the overlooked Lords and Ladies, the climax of his initial trilogy of novels about a coven of witches. Amid the jagged hills and deep dark woods of the remote kingdom of Lancre, Pratchett explores myth and the dark side of fairy tales, the fading world of rural England, the complex and submerged traditions of female power and the psychology of witches, and of old women generally, but most of all, and unexpectedly, he builds themes of aging, loss, memory and forgetfulness, regret and pride, imbuing the novel with a painful melancholy. Oh, and it is, in places, absolutely hilarious, and a bit of a thriller too.
Now read on…
When does it start?
There are very few starts. Oh, some things seem to be beginnings.
The curtain goes up, the first pawn moves, the first shot is fired1 – but that’s not the start. The play, the game, the war is just a little window on a ribbon of events that may extend back thousands of years. The point is, there’s always something before. It’s always a case of Now Read On.
Much human ingenuity has gone into finding the ultimate Before.
The current state of knowledge can be summarized thus:
In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.
Other theories about the ultimate start involve gods creating the universe out of the ribs, entrails and testicles of their father.2 There are quite a lot of these. They are interesting, not for what they tell you about cosmology, but for what they say about people…
1 Probably at the first pawn.
2 Gods like a joke as much as anyone else.
The once-legendary, once-banned magnum opus of the great forgotten man of the history of fantasy. Cabell in his day was considered not only the world’s foremost fantasist, but among the very greatest and most iconic writers of his generation; it’s not hard to see why. Jurgen’s elegant, hilarious wit is spiked with an elegaic prose poetry, enabling the whole to be read either as a lighthearted, innuendo-stuffed romp or as an agonised dissection of the angst and self-doubt of a mid-life crisis, as our eponymous philanderer, a ‘monstrous clever fellow’ does his best to try out all competing visions of the good life, from heaven to hell via Arthurian legend.
It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, saying: In the old days lived a pawnbrokwer named Jurgen; but what his wife called him was very often much worse than that. She was a high-spirited woman, with no especial gift for silence. Her name, they say, was Adelais, but people by ordinary called her Dame Lisa
They tell, also, that in the old says, after putting up the shop-windows for the night, Jurgen was passing the Cistercian Abbey, on his way home: and one of the monks had tripped over a stone in the roadway. He was cursing the devil who had placed it there.
“Fie, brother!” says Jurgen, “and have not the devils enough to bear as it is?”
Chesterton’s protean masterpiece: a detective novel; a thriller; a philosophical novel; a theological treatise; a spy novel; an adventure novel; a fantasy; a surrealist novel; a comedy. Chesterton gallops through the genres, including some that he had to invent or near-invent in the process, with (after the first chapter or so) an effortless mastery of structure and pacing and prose style and a dazzling wit. If it lacks warmth, it makes up for it in thrills, laughter and a continual explosion of ideas.
The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical. It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable. The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit in to them.
I didn’t think, way back when I read the entertaining but unremarkable Assassin’s Apprentice, that I would ever be putting Robin Hobb’s writing – or any mass-market epic fantasy series – on an all-time list like this one. But 14 heavy volumes later, Hobb has taken the fantasy epic to literary heights; if you can tolerate the increasingly slow pace and psychological focus (factors which seem to have driven away casual readers even while inspiring increasing devotion from her more dedicated fans), the reward is work of dizzying joys and soul-rendering sorrows, of gripping action but of long-drawn, almost unbearable suspense. Literary types will no doubt protest that Hobb’s writing still lacks the highest perfections of their vision of the art, not to mention an unrepentantly genre attitude; what such complaints would be missing is the way that the machinery of genre – fantastical devices, freedom in worldbuilding, a shorthand of expectations, and immense length – in Hobb’s hands is able to produce emotional, visceral effects that more austere, constrained, more ‘perfect’ literary work is congenitally unable to generate.
I am warm and safe in the den, with my two siblings. They are both heartier and stronger than I am. Born last, I am smallest of al. My eyes were slow to open, and I have been the least adventurous of the cubs. Both my brother and my sister have dared, more than once, to follow my mother to the mouth of the den dug deep in the undercut bank of the river. Each time, she has snarled and snapped at them, driving them back. She leaves us alone when she goes out to hunt. There should be a wolf to watch over us, a younger member of the pack who remains with us. But she is all that is left of the pack, and so she must go out to hunt alone and we must stay where she leaves us.
There is a day when she shakes free of us, long before we have had enough of her milk. She leaves us, going to the hunt, leaving the den as evening starts to creep across the land. We hear from her a single yelp. That is all…
The Prestige may not be Priest’s most eye-catching book (his more philosophical The Affirmation could also have made this list), and snobs may even disdain its more accessible subject matter and the temerity of its being an enjoyable read – not exactly a literary work. And yet the brain-twisting trickery and thematic complexity mean it’s not exactly a popcorn novel either.
What The Prestige is, however, is a tour de force of novelistic genius. Tension? Tortuous. Excitement? There are a couple of scenes that had my heart in my mouth. I was thrilled throughout. Emotion? Perhaps it’s not the warmest of novels, but I found myself fully engaged with the characters, and caring for them in their triumphs and tragedies. Cleverness? There’s one twist in particular that had me, and so many other readers it seems, furiously, incredulously rereading a couple of dozen pages to understand just how guilefully, how suavely, we had been mislead, and yet that’s only one of half a dozen delicate bombshells. Conceptual fertility? Ideas and themes play intertwiningly with one another, ranging from the mundane right up to some brilliant philosophical thought experiments – the ‘ideas’ of the classic SF ideas-novel. Structural ingenuity? Mastery of prose? The novel juxtaposes two accounts of (largely) the same events, which highlights just how good Priest is, both in the management of information (it’s the rare novel that actually makes unreliable narrators contribute something substantial) and in the subtle but unmistakable way that the voices of the two men, from their sentence structure through to their view of the world, are deftly distinguished.
In short, it’s a book that does everything at least competantly, most things impressively, and some things astonishingly well.
It began on a train, heading north through England, although I was soon to discover that the story had really begun more than a hundred years earlier.
I had no sense of any of this at the time: I was on company time, following up a report of an incident at a religious sect. On my lap lay the bulky envelope I had received from my father that morning, still unopened, because when Dad phoned to tell my mind had been elswhere. A bedroom door slamming, my girlfriend in the middle of walking out on me. ‘Yes, Dad,’ I had said, as Zelda stormed past with a boxfull of my compact discs. ‘Drop it in the mail, and I’ll have a look’…
Krabbe´s brief novel is reputedly considered a classic in Dutch; its English edition, in the little-more-than-ten-years since its publication, has rapidly become a genuine cult classic. It’s instantly clear why, as this is a novel that makes no compromises, and inspires in its readers either devotion or dismay. The Rider is, on the surface, a thrilling, blow-by-blow account of a semi-pro bicycle road race in the south of France in the 1970s, drawn in fictionalised manner from the experiences of the author himself; but as Krabbé climbs, attacks and descends his pain-bewildered mind explores his sport, his life, and his surroundings. It is little less than an entire philosophical worldview, ranging from psychology to sociology via the mind/body problem, but always and unbreakably routed in the physicality, the suffering of the sport; and beyond that, it is an exploration of cycling itself, of sport, of obsession, of religion, faith, delusion and identity. It speaks in the voice of faith – or perhaps of narcissism – from the point where ordinary lives dissolve, in the specificity of their decisions, into insanity. Its prose is taut, beating out the rhythms of the wheels, while its sentiments soar into poetry. I may not be able to fully embrace its vision; but I can recognise its power, its otherness, and its sweeping humanity.
Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourist and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.
So, there we are! Ten authors, ten novels (or nine and a novella). I suppose for seven years maybe I should only have done seven novels? Well, too late now! If you haven’t read all of these, you should go out and do so (although for the Pratchett and certainly the Hobb it’s probably better to go out and read other books by those authors if you’re not up to those points in their series yet). You won’t like all of them, but these are all so good I genuinely think that everyone should be able to get something out of each of them, given an open mind, and some of them may well be books to rock your world.
But, of course, reviewing is subjective, and cut-offs are arbitrary – so what else might have made the list? Well, other than books by the above authors, a pair of SF classics would be next on the list: the synaesthetic rollercoaster of The Stars My Destination (Bester) and the cerebral post-apocalyptic monasticism of A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller). Those two are closely accompanied by the larger-than-life The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Chabon). In the next tranche there’s something by Margo Lanagan – either the novel Tender Morsels or the short story collection Black Juice, alongside Michael Marshall Smith’s breakneck SF oddity Only Forward, Alan Moore’s classic dark superhero graphic novel Watchmen, Keith Waterhouse’s Yorkshire coming-of-age story Billy Liar, Samuel Delany’s challenging magnum opus Dhalgren, and the extraordinary, mostly-true fin de siècle memoirs of a doctor, Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele.
What’s next for the next seven years? No idea. Hopefully a lot, but maybe only a little. Some new books, and a lot more old books that are still new to me – and hopefully I’ll get around to some of my old favourites too. So, see you next time…