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.
Opinions are strange things. We all disagree, and so vociferously, on so much, that we often forget that on most basic issues most of us are in complete agreement. By and large, conflict between dissenting views does not arise from fundamental differences in moral, aesthetic, or interpretive instincts – but simply from differences in how competing factors are weighted. Almost everyone wants liberty, for example, and almost everyone wants security, but how we balance one against the other differs from person to person. Most of us perhaps don’t think about this consciously, but it’s not controversial. It’s how political campaigning works. Candidates rarely try to change your opinion about this issue or that – instead, they try to frame elections in ways that highlight one issue (the one where you agree with them) and obscure another (the one where you disagree). It’s why care has to be taken when administering polls, surveys, questionnaires and so forth – even something as simple as changing the order of questions can change what it uppermost in your mind at any given time, which can change what seems to you the most important issue at the moment, changing your answer.
Which is a longwinded way of saying: this is going to be another of those “on the one hand, but on the other” reviews of late Discworld that I’ve been doing for a while now. And in this case, I’m going to put that in a slightly odd and perhaps too callous way: I think Thud! has improved considerably with the death of its author.
But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.
The mist was filling the streets now, leaving the buildings like islands in surf.
I’ve been aware for a while now that there are two radically different interpretations of Going Postal’s place in the Discworld cannon. In one interpretation, Going Postal is The Beginning Of The End, give or take a book or two in either direction – the tipping point into the declining standards of the final run of the cycle. In the other interpretation, Going Postal is a wonderful entry point for new readers, a turn away from some of the more tentative novels of the preceding era, a celebration of a mature Discworld that has found its voice at last.
It’s possible that both of these interpretations are true.
CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror? CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood. CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice. CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.
Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, as quoted in Watership Down
I couldn’t find my copy of Watership Down, so I bought a new one. Mysteriously, it’s twice the size of my old one and it’s not in big print – we must all have had great eyes in the olden days. The point, though, is where I found this copy in the bookshop: on the shelves labelled “Ages 9-12”.
Well, when a book is marketed for 9-year-olds and begins with a quote about death and dripping blood, out of a Greek tragedy, it’s fair to say that we’re in odd territory; and it’s hard to know exactly how to evaluate it. Perhaps the distinction between books for children and books for adults has simply grown over the years: a book must be one thing or the other. Watership Down, however, is a kid’s book with Aeschylus quotations. It has genocide, bloodshed, people ripped apart, and women reabsorbing their own foetuses as a result of the depression induced in them by systematic rape and then singing songs about it. It’s a book that has a reputation for giving children lasting nightmares, for scarring them for life (and the film adaptation is still spoken of with awe and horror).
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a book for children. The thing is, most children’s books today essentially set out to teach children to be… well, children. Doing children things, acting and feeling and speaking childishly. Watership Down comes from an older tradition – a tradition in which the purpose of a book for children is to teach children how to be adults.
I read the first novel in this duology, Seraphina, and rather liked it, despite myself. It was a fresh, attractively written novel, albeit one with some real irritations about it.
Most of what was good about Seraphina is still good about Shadow Scale. Most of what was bad about Seraphina is still bad about Shadow Scale, though thankfully the valorised self-harm body-image thread has been set to one side. And also, to be fair, the incredibly creepiness of the romance has been toned down too, mostly by keeping the love interest off screen and silent as much as possible.
Have you ever played a fantasy or science-fiction role-playing game on a computer? I’m thinking of things like the Mass Effect series. If so, you may have noticed that many of these games come with some form of ‘codex’, a pack of documents explaining the backstory behind the characters and the world, generally parcelled out to you in small, unthreatening dribbles as you go through the game. You typically don’t actually have to read the codex to complete the game, but it can be a fun, interesting read.
Have you ever wanted to just read an entire codex from start to finish, but restructured around the experiences of a couple of protagonist characters? If so, Dragonsdawn might appeal to you…
It is not easy for the perceptive critic to doubt [the literary permanence of James Branch Cabell, as surely exceeding that of all writers in England save arguably Hardy and Conrad]. One might as sensibly deny a future to Ecclesiastes, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, and the works of Rabelais as to predict oblivion for such a thesaurus of ironic wit and fine fantasy, mellow wisdom and strange beauty, as Jurgen. – Burton Rascoe, Literary Editor at the New York Herald Tribune, 1921
Well, I’ve run into a bit of a problem with this review. The thing is… it’s a bit too long.
So I’m going start out instead with a short flow-chart summary, which may save you from having to wade through the full review.
Are you interested in the history of the SF&F genre? If so, you should read this book. Cabell may be forgotten today, but he’s one of the truly seminal figures in the genre and this is his most famous novel. Neil Gaiman has called Cabell his favourite author; Robert Heinlein and Jack Vance began their careers by unabashedly trying to emulate him; James Blish, Lin Carter and Poul Anderson contributed articles to a journal devoted to studying him (Roger Zelazny sent in letters). Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin agree, for once, in praising him. Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner and Terry Pratchett are just a few other writers believed to have been influenced by him.
Are you interested in the history of American literature, or the history of 20th century literature? If so, you should read this book. Cabell was routinely considered one of the half dozen or so titans of American literature throughout the 1920s and 1930s (having been a highly acclaimed writer’s writer before that). H.L Mencken called him the greatest living American writer; F. Scott Fitzgerald put him third in his personal canon after Joseph Conrad and Anatole France; his wife Zelda called him her favourite author of all, and one of only two writers (along with Edith Wharton) who had ever made her cry. [Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman all agreeing on their favourite author: how can you not want to read him?] Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis are just two examples of writers who boasted of Cabellian influences, and when Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and mentioned, in his speech, the other American writers of his era who might have been equally deserving, Cabell was the third name to come to his mind. And quality aside, the court case surrounding Jurgen was the literary cause célèbre of its day, making it, and Cabell, icons for a generation. Oh, and Mark Twain said that Cabell was the author he most enjoyed reading.
Are you looking for a hilarious light read? If so, do you find writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett funny? If so, read this book.
Are you looking for an insightful study of the nature of human existence, or at least human existence as it might appear from a very particular personal perspective? If so, read this book. It wasn’t the icon of a generation for nothing.
Are you interested in the Mediaeval Romance, or in Victorian Revivalism? In Malory, and Rabelais, and Bunyan, and Scott, and Tennyson, and William Morris, and T.H. White? But you don’t mind them being made fun of a little? If so, read this book.
Are you interested in cultural and sociological modern history, and would appreciate satire directed at early-20th century American society? If so, read this book.
Do you like beautiful prose? And do you like the prose of Wilde, and Chesterton? If so… well, it’s not a must-read, but if you have the time I’d certainly recommend it.
Do you need your books to have a strong driving plot, with no time for diversions and amusing episodes? Well, don’t worry too much, since it’s not a long novel – but it may not be perfect for you.
Do you need gritty, authentic realism? Must everything be dry and serious? Does everything have to happen next to a kitchen sink, and should more dialogue be conducted through grunts than through speeches? Then this may not be the book you want.
Do you want your books to have a clear, wholesome sense of moral certitude and respect for upright conventional mores? Then the fact that this novel was banned and the author prosecuted for indecency might be a clue that this one may not be entirely up your alley.
Are you now strongly tempted to go and read Jurgen? If so, go and read Jurgen. Like I say, it’s not a gigantic book, and this is a very long review, so you’re probably better off just reading the novel right now. You can always come back for my thoughts about it later. If not, but you are considering maybe one day getting around to adding it to your TBR pile, then do, please, feel free to read this review…