Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading and Writing Review 2016


Reading

My 35 reads in 2016 delivered some great works, including a couple that I'm sure will remain all time favourites. I also finally succumbed to lifelong pressure To Kill a Mockingbird, not a bad thing mind you, it's as good as the preachers claim. 

I'm happy to provide further comment on any of the below reads. 

Books Read (bold: published in 2016)

East of Eden John Steinbeck                                                                                                 

Nights at the Circus Angela Carter                                                                                       

The White Tiger Aravind Adiga                                                                                

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee                                                                            

The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes (novella)                                                      

Ragtime E.L Doctorow                                                                                               

Nutshell Ian McEwan (novella)

Butcher's Crossing John Williams

The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque Jeffrey Ford

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean David Abulafia (history)

The Wasp Factory Ian Banks

The Pearl
John Steinbeck (novella)

The Daughter Pavlos Matesis

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Six ed. Jonathan Strahan (anthology)

The Lightning Tree Patrick Rothfuss (novella from Rogues ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois)

The Leaf in the Wind of All Hallows Diana Gabaldon (novella from Songs of Life & Death ed. George R.R Martin & Gardner Dozois)

The Inheritance of Loss Kiran Desai

The Man Who Bridged the Mist Kij Johnson (novella)

At the Edge Ed. Dan Rabarts & Lee Murray (anthology)

Rogues ed. Gardner Dozois & George R.R Martin (anthology)

Songs of Love & Death ed. Gardner Dozois & George R.R Martin (anthology

The Company Articles of Edward Teach Thoraiya Dyer (novella)

The Maze Panos Karnezis

Coming Through Slaughter Michael Ondaatje (novella)

The Natural Way of Things Charlotte Wood


All the Time in the World E.L Doctorow (collection)

The Noise of Time Julian Barnes

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins (YA)

The Stone Gods Jeanette Winterson

The Angaelien Apocalypse Matthew Chrulew (novella)

Fugue for a Darkening Island Christopher Priest

Diamonds from Tequila Walter John Williams (novella from Rogues ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois)

Carnies Martin Livings

Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad  (novella)

Flaubert’s Parrot Julian Barnes

Reading Highlights and Standouts

Novel Highlights

I could have easily listed another dozen here. Ragtime by E.L Doctorow, Nutshell by Ian McEwan, The Daughter by Pavlos Matesis, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Butcher's Crossing by John Williams, for instance, were all fab reads and, as mentioned, there were many more.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Arguably the best novel I've ever read. And I say this even though there is an unusual flaw in the novel: a sporadic first person voice intrudes at times, it's invasive and difficult to ascertain why it's used. Yet such is the scope of the work that this doesn't matter. Steinbeck incorporates melodrama, mystery, suspense, while also exploring villainy and heroism, love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal. What I think surprised me most was the humour and wisdom which came from the Irish and Asian characters. It's a wonderful exploration of not only the topography of Salinas Valley, but also the broader American identity, including the way it was morphing at the time. Wisdom in East of Eden comes from both within and from outside the traditional White experience. The new 'foreign' American migrant is extremely influential, to go along with the American drifter, and the more sturdy generational farmer. A true masterpiece.




Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Another now all time favourite. I loved The Bloody Chamber, but Nights at the Circus is even better. After a delightful start, the initial interview with the winged-wonder Fevers begins to grow ponderous, but after that Angela Carter really makes her mark here. The prose is rich and incredibly witty. Carter has such an incredible command of syntax and language that it's playful fun all the way through. I'd rate the work as the heir apparent to Virginia Wolfe's Orlando, yet Nights at the Circus surpasses Orlando: the language enjoys a few similarities, but Carter manages to keep it forever fresh, her structure and characters more alive and entertaining, and the narrative far more enticing. Nights at the Circus is a visionary work and a stellar achievement. The winged heroine Fevers is one of the all time great protagonists, her metaphorical dichotomy of being a winged landlubber is reflective of her dichotomous nature on so many levels. Like East of Eden, a masterpiece.



To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

No need for a lengthy comment on TKAM as everyone else has before me. I loved the fact that it wasn't a super tight narrative, but lightly meandered about. The voice of Scout, a combination of reflection and nostalgia, along with an innocent and honest childlike voice, works incredibly well. Deserves its critical acclaim. Harper Lee sadly passed away midway through my reading.




The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Although it won the Man Booker Prize, Adiga has come under severe criticism by those who say The White Tiger doesn't have the maturity or lyrical grandeur of novels by other Indian writers such as Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai or Salman Rushdie. The issue I have with these critics is that Adiga isn't trying to be poetic or lyrical - it's comparing apples with oranges. This is dark cartoonish humour and a scathing attack on capitalism, class inequality and corruption. The anti-hero – or some may say the villain – is fiercely intelligent, but also has a violent and wayward moral compass, yet this anti-hero takes on the unjust class system. As a reader we uncomfortably barrack for this morally corrupt, ambitious, intelligent, 'half-baked' psychopath for trying to move beyond his station as an 'Invisible' – one who originates from the poverty-stricken 'Darkness'. This work is dark, incredibly funny and a real page turner. It's a remarkably successful satire.





Anthology Highlights

I won't include the anthologies I've stories in due to bias.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Six ed. Jonathan Strahan

Like any anthology, not all stories were to my taste, but when you discover several are up there with the best you've read, then it certainly counts as a highlight.

Very strong stories include: 'All That Touches the Air' by An Owomeyela, 'A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong' by K.J Parker, 'The Dala Horse' by Michael Swanwick, 'The Corpse Painter's Masterpiece' by M Rickert, 'The Paper Menagerie' by Kevin Liu, 'After the Apocalypse' by Maureen F. McHugh, 'Underbridge' by Peter S. Beagle, 'Relic' by Jeffrey Ford. 'The Invasion of Venus' by Stephen Baxter, 'The Catastrophic Disruption of the Head' by Margo Lanagan, 'The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from the Great Book)' by Nnedi Okorafor, and the novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson is a strong and gentle moving story of engineering, love and change.

And then there are the absolute greats. I don't often do this, but I'd written a review on Goodreads, so I can dedicate a little time to each via the old cut and paste:

'White Lines on a Green Field' by Catherynne M. Valente is a wild, magical, animalistic portrayal of leaving year. The especially strong, evocative narrative voice howls out to readers in a tale of mythical and symbolic wonder.

'What We Found' by Geoff Ryman is another diamond. The story immerses the reader into the strong socio-cultural world of a Nigerian family. It successfully explores class and cultural rivalry, along with gender and family power relationships, all within the various substructures of Nigerian society. I'm now on the hunt for more of Ryman's work.

'Old Habits' by Nalo Hopkinson is a work that I've read before (along with 'Tidal Forces' by Caitlin R. Kiernan) in the anthology Eclipse Four, also edited by Strahan. This has to be one of the most underrated stories of our time. Set in the consumerist setting of a shopping mall, those who have died there only feel –in a sensory manner– when they relive their deaths each day, which they aptly label 'being on the clock'. These damned souls also occasionally prey on one another to sense briefly what it is to be 'human'. Entrapped within the mall, the characters come from a variety of marginalised societal groups.

Can the gay protagonist (a loving father with a witty sense of humour) step out of this purgatorial comfort zone into the dark unknown outside of the mall; and by doing so take his own leap of faith to be a better being? Utterly fantastic.

'Steam Girl' by Dylan Horrocks is a stunningly beautiful and emotional story about escapism and friendship. Horrocks pulled me in and never let me go. Pathos and pothos abound here. It also has this especially insightful line on the narrative craft: 'Some writers write to escape from reality. Others write to understand it. But the best writers write in order to take possession of reality, and so transform it.' Beautiful, isn't it?

'Restoration' by Robert Shearman is a fresh and cynical story that reminded me of George Saunders at his offbeat best. A couple are lost to time but not to love as they restore enormous paintings portraying single years in history. A quirky, ingenious tale by a superb writer.




Rogues Ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

A concept which appeals to me as I've always loved rogues in my escapist reading. It's a fun anthology, but it also has some real substance too.

Four more standouts (rest mentioned on Recommended Reads Short Story Reads of 2015 ) include: ‘The Caravan to Nowhere’ by Phyllis Eisenstein, ‘The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives’ by Lisa Tuttle'The Lightning Tree' by Patrick Rothfuss  and ‘How the Marquis Got his Coat Back’ by Neil Gaiman. 'Now Showing' by Connie Willis is very good too.




Disappointments

Only two major ones this year. I'm a fan of Julian Barnes: his novel Arthur and George (my favourite of his works) along with his novella The Sense of an Ending, I'd happily recommend to any reader, but Flaubert's Parrot reads more like an academic exercise, as a result it is stiff, stilted and difficult to connect with. Mind you, Flaubert enthusiasts may think otherwise.

And the canonical Heart of Darkness just reaffirmed that there are so many gems outside of the supposed canon. Other than being able to chew the fat about Conrad's novella with fellow readers, and provide context for other texts (particularly films), reading it was a waste of time - unless you're up for a critical reading. Even Conrad claimed it was one of his lesser works.

Then again, the canon's TKAM truly impressed...

Publications

I'm happy to have played a part in the anthology At the Edge Ed. Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts. My story 'Crossing' has been mentioned as a standout in The New Zealand Booksellers Blog, along with the leading NZ magazine The Listener. Nice to see other stories regarded as standouts elsewhere too – the reviews highlight a variety of different stories – I think this indicates the broad range of stories, their varied mood and genre, along with the overall high quality of the anthology's offerings.

My story 'Lady Killer' from Bloodlines ed. Amanda Pillar will be in a Year's Best soon. The ToC hasn't been officially announced yet – I'll post it up when it does.

A lengthy opinion piece in The Guardian on McGowan's promise to legalise cage fighting in WA if elected. I'm following up with a longer piece with sports concussion experts in the US. I'll keep those interested updated.

I have a novella publication locked in for next year too.

Wishing you all a wonderful festive season. Eat, drink and love.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff as always Anthony. I honestly don't remember much of To Kill a Mockingbird in retrospect, but I do remember being deeply moved by it and thinking it was absolutely a classic 10/10 novel which deserved all its accolades.

    The White Tiger, too, I think is a brilliant novel which I also happened to read at exactly the right time in my life, i.e. right after I'd gone backpacking in Asia and come face to face with actual poverty for the first time. It's not that the book itself made me question the general ideas of fairness and hard work and whatever other claptrap society puts outs, but rather one which articulated and crystallised those feelings that I was already having. To this day I still haven't been able to get a solid answer on whether my own first world comfort is the result of merely historical exploitation, or rather contemporary exploitation in a zero-sum game in which the 99% of the third world are the losers. A very deserving Booker winner, I think.

    On that cheery note, all the best for 2017!

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    1. Thanks, Mitch. TKAM did deserve its accolades. I was pleasantly surprised by it.

      And what a time to read The White Tiger (or tragic time). Like your comments on poverty. You've nailed it - either way it's horrific exploitation. And The White Tiger successfully conveys what we both most likely think of it all.

      Hope you have a fab 2017!

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