Home

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

29 Comments

That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

Advertisements

The slippery nature of reality @mjohnharrison @commapress

11 Comments

You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

As the press blurb states, MJH is considered by many a figurehead of genre writing in the UK. His stories first began appearing in sci-fi collections in the 1960s, and he went on to produce some stunning novels featuring the fictional world of Viriconium, which are landmarks of speculative writing in my view. As well as many other sci-fi works (including the highly regarded “Kefahuchi Tract ” trilogy), he’s written mainstream novels and numerous quite brilliant short stories – the latter format being, of course, the one he began with. MJH aficionados tend to be a bit passionate and protective about his work; I think he’s one of the hidden jewels in the literary crown of this country, and so I was very, very excited by the prospect of a new collection of shorter works.

“You Should Come With Me Now”, published by Comma Press, contains a remarkable variety of works, ranging in length from half-page flash fiction fragments to longer stories, and all are frankly brilliant. In fact, the title and cover illustration are apt, as we are encouraged to take Harrison’s hand very trustingly and let him lead us into the labyrinth of his dazzling, unsettling and quite unique stories.

The shorter works are intriguing: tantalising fragments which tease you into wondering what would happen if they were developed into something longer, yet still satisfying in their own right. They’re often dry and laced with dark humour, reflecting the sheer fertility of MJH’s mind (and how can you not love an author who casually drops mention of Woolf. Mansfield and Richardson into a story?)

As for the longer pieces – well, where do I start? He’s a master of the twist and his stories constantly subvert your expectations. “In Autotelia” is a fine example; what begins as something which could be a relatively straightforward tale of a person on a train in an ordinary setting soon displays disturbing elements and ends by completely overturning any expectations you might have had. It’s the kind of storytelling MJH does so well and it’s amply on display here.

The realms created by MJH are often nebulous and undefined, and maybe that’s what I love about them. World-building can be too absolute, and since the real world is a fluid place, perhaps our fictional alternatives should be too. Certainly, the relationship between the places and people we’re reading about here and what we see outside our window is often unclear, which adds to the unsettling quality of the stories. Harrison’s work often negotiates the slippery intersection between reality and the fantastic in all its shapes and forms, an area notoriously difficult to navigate and which he handles with aplomb. Within all this, however, MJH is a wonderfully acute observer of human behaviour with all its foibles, quirks and eccentricities; whatever the setting, whether real world now or future world or world off to the side somewhere, humans are always humans…

M. John Harrison

The stories range far and wide over subjects as diverse as visiting aliens and the complexity of relationships in the modern age. MJH often looks at the darker side of things, but there is plenty of spiky wit too. Picking favourites would be unfair with such a rich and varied collection but I particularly noted: “Animals”, an unnerving take on the ghost story, featuring a woman encountering a tangible presence in a rented cottage; “The Good Detective”, perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from the modern world and your own psyche; “Psychoarcheology”, which takes the discovery of the remains of Richard III and riffs on it; “Imaginary Reviews” a series of capsule reviews of books which may or may not exist; and similarly “Babies from Sand”, a series of short numbered paragraphs peopled with shifting names, fluid characters and possibly spurious paintings. It’s not for nothing that the book is subtitled “Stories for Ghosts” as so many of the beings and their situations are undefined, fleeting and often not really there.

I was happily reading away and then suddenly, boom! About two-thirds of the way through the book we are clearly back in the vicinity of Viriconium with the story “Jack of Mercy’s”. Although this is not stated explicitly, any regular reader will recognise the names Crome, Ashlyme and Audsley King, which is enough of a giveaway. The tone of the writing in this story seemed to me to be particularly Viriconium-ish too; although that ever-shifting, ever-changing, ever-fluid place seems to have edged ever closer to our own world over the years, so much so that the lines are very blurred here. Needless to say, this was a particular treasure in the collection.

“You Should Come With Me Now” showcases Harrison at his best and each of these pieces, short or long, is an absolute gem, distinct and remarkable in its own right (which is something you can’t often say about a book of shorter works). The writing us just stunning; his powers have not ebbed over the years and if anything they’ve strengthened with maturity. I could go on and on about how brilliant these stories are; “You Should Come With Me Now” is a virtuoso performance by a master of his art, and a highlight of my reading year. What else do I need to say to convince you to make sure you read this book? 🙂

If I’ve managed to interest you at all in M. John Harrison, you can follow his blog here.

Review copy kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many, many thanks! 🙂

%d bloggers like this: