Thursday, January 04, 2007

Welcome 2007 – The Best of 2006 - Books

So far 2007 has been pretty much OK – long may it last. I had a sober, early to bed New Year’s Eve, which was my preference, as I seem to have grown out of New Year celebrations and feel that if I never hear Auld Lang Syne again it will be too soon. One of the pleasures of New Year is putting up a new calendar. I normally buy myself a couple of calenders every year, one for work and one for home. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology produces a weather calendar every year. These contain spectacular photos of weather events in Australia and the Antarctic. There are generally a few dramatic lightning photos, unusual cloud formations, mist , rainbows etc. This is the calendar I take to work. I love looking at a different photo each month. My home calendar this year is the 2007 Michael Parkes calendar. His paintings are exquisite magic realist depictions of exotic women, strange creatures and big cats often all in the same frame. Check out his site and see for yourself.

For the nonce it’s back to 2006 with my best of lists.


It is difficult to recall just exactly what I read during 2006. Mostly I re-read books from my personal library as books in Australia are quite expensive, so I don’t tend to buy as many as I used to pre-millennium. Also B is always on at me over the crowded state of my bookshelves and there is no room for more shelving, so buying new books is fraught with anxiety, though a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

These days new books are only those that I feel I must own. Generally they are hard cover first editions, as I like to collect Modern Firsts under the impression that they will gain in value over the years. Australian booksellers do not tend to stock hard cover editions of new novels. New novels are issued as special trade paperback editions especially for the Australian book market. I obtain my hard cover editions online or through Slow Glass Books which is a small mail-order business run by a former work colleague. He can get me any edition I want as long as it is in the speculative fiction field and does sell some hard cover editions at the same price as the local trade paperback editions.

The following are a few new books I found quite interesting.

The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow This is a delightful novel that tells the tale of Jennet Stearne daughter of a witch finder. Narrated by Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica it is a picaresque tale of high adventure, and also delivers a cogent condemnation of the witch trials of the 17th Century in England and the New World. James Morrow is the author of a wonderful trio of apocryphal novels, Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon and The Eternal Footman. He also wrote This is the Way the World Ends about the aftermath of a nuclear war and Only Begotten Daughter another apocryphal tale involving a Jewish man giving virgin birth to God’s daughter. All the above are tremendously amusing novels by one of the most unusual and original authors around.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (read an excerpt ) I first discovered this highly unusual novel when I read an excerpt of the original short story online late in 2005.. It is beautifully written and describes the lives of the dead who inhabit The City , as it is called. The dead lead normal lives in The City. Sometimes residents disappear overnight and no one knows what is beyond The City. It is rumoured that so long as someone on the other side (alive) still remembers you, you will continue to live in The City. A second story, that of Laura Byrd, a wildlife specialist hired by the Coca-Cola corporation to do some PR-savvy research in Antarctica, alternates with the stories of the people in The City. How the two stories are linked is the central mystery of the plot.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I decided to buy this novel after re-reading Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and felt like reading more of his stuff. This is an extremely affecting book about what it means to be human. It is bleak but not without hope. Ishiguro writes in a deceptively simple style, but this subtlety expresses beautifully the depth of ideas behind the novel.

I have mentioned on this blog some of my other reading last year. There’s a short review of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn which was one of the best novels I read last year. Also I was very impressed with Arthur and George by Julian Barnes and David Mitchell’s latest novel Black Swan Green, which, though being quite a departure from his previous novels, was a splendid and unusual coming of age story. If you haven’t read David Mitchell, I highly recommend his earlier novels Ghostwritten, Number 9 Dream and Cloud Atlas – all are highly original and beautifully written. He’s one of the best new writers I have come across in ages.

As well as reading literature with a capital L, I do occasionally resort to more frivolous reading purely for the entertainment value. As long as the books are not badly written, I don’t feel all that guilty about wasting time on them.

I received a book voucher for Christmas and as soon the shops were back in business I went and redeemed it. My intention was to get Cormac McCarthy’s new book The Road, but unfortunately it was out of stock at the time, so I went feral and selected the first two books in the Temeraire fantasy trilogy by Naomi Novik. Travelling home, I started reading the first volume and was hooked. I had been reading Pilgerman by Russell Hoban as a follow on from Riddley Walker, but this was put on hold until I finished the Novik novels. They were certainly a break from serious literature, but great fun to read. They can be described as adventure ala CS Forester’s Hornblower - with dragons. The characters are endearing - especially Temeraire the dragon - the plot is engaging and the action sequences are satisfyingly exciting. I screeched to a halt half way through the second book, when it all of sudden became another novel – very frustrating! A dash back into town resulted in a satisfactory exchange. I managed to find the third book today after searching three book stores to no avail. Guess what I’ll be reading on the weekend!

Other light reading has been Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering duology comprising the novels Banewreaker and Godslayer. They are a kind of inverted version of Lord of the Rings a clever concept that works very well. Carey’s novels are one of my guilty pleasures. She writes with enormous assurance and her Kushiel sequence is racy stuff though very entertaining. I can’t wait for the next book in the series to come out in paperback.

My re-reads, from memory, encompassed Angela Carter’s complete short stories, 1984 by George Orwell, a couple of Jane Gardam’s books and many others including Little Big by John Crowley, one of the most original fantasies ever written. It’s a sublime novel and one of my all time favorites. I also re-read, for the umpteenth time the last two volumes of Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, Nile Shadows and Jericho Mosaic from which exercise I emerged convinced all over again of Whittemore’s genius. Nile Shadows is set in Egypt during the Second World War and involves espionage among other things. However it is not at all like a regular spy or war novel. Much of the novel is taken up with conversations between the characters and what conversations they are! Set in more recent times, Jericho Mosaic is the most serious novel of the Quartet and the least fantastic in content. It is the story of an Israeli spy who infiltrates Syrian high command, masquerading as an Arab. It is based on the exploits of Eli Cohen the famous Israeli spy. While reading it again, I found so many wonderful quotable passages, one of which is below:

Anna wasn’t surprised that Tajar had become so friendly with Bell. She only wondered why he hadn’t looked up Bell sooner. Were you being shy? She asked him merrily.

Tajar smiled. I’m always shy with holy men, he said. It’s just not seemly to go banging into the life of someone who’s considered a holy man, Besides, this hermit-in-residence happens to reside in Jericho and Jericho runs on a different time. Jerusalem is old but Jericho is three times older, and who can imagine such a thing? In Jericho you might meet a neighbor in the morning, then a dozen years later you might greet him in the afternoon and ask him how he is that day. Down there time isn’t going anywhere, in other words, and neither are you. Bell says Abu Musa thinks he’s three hundred years old and maybe he is. The corn gets harvested in May. Bell also says Moses the Ethiopian thinks he’s living in the age of King David and maybe that’s true too. What makes sense in such a place? Jerusalem is timeless, but what then of a place that’s three times older than timeless? Surely it must be another realm altogether.

It is a fine way to end this entry. I am looking forward to a number of new books in 2007, foremost of which is the final book in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence. I have preordered it and expect to receive it in May when the 25th Anniversary edition of Little Big will also be published. I’m also looking forward to a new book from William Gibson, called Spook Country and Rose Tremain, another of my favorite authors, has a new book out in August. So there appear to be lots of treats in store for 2007.

My music best of rave will follow shortly.

Finally, I would also like to wish the readers of this blog a very happy New Year full of good things.

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