james debate
james debate

Tuesday 21 December 2021

In 2020 I put my lockdown to good use by reading. One book per month, you can find the write-up here. Thankfully, the world of 2021 was more open, but I kept reading. It's an undervalued hobby, one that I can't recommend enough. Whether your interest is in non-fiction, sci-fi epics, or the classics of literature, reading exercises the mind and expands your worldview. It's also fun. Long-time readers will know that this is the time of year where we gear up for our end of year Debbie Awards. But in the interest of promoting this great past-time, I have decided to keep the book review it's own thing. So please, join us in our 2021 instalment of the now-recurring annual Ephemeric Book Review.

one book every month year challenge 2021 ephemeric

January - "Golden Hill" by Francis Spufford

This one came as a recommendation while awaiting the 2021 release of Spufford's new novel. An enigmatic Englishman arrives in the nascent New York of the mid 18th Century, looking to cash a large sum of money with little else to vouch for his credit than a piece of paper, and no easy way to confirm its legitimacy given the technological limitations of the day.

The premise is great, built around a central mystery that manages to effectively keep the reader in the dark right up until the ending. The author has chosen a fascinating period setting that does materially contribute to the narrative. Unfortunately, I found reading this to be a bit of a slog. While the story is peppered with entertaining events, the pacing between them is often overly long and uninteresting. Worse still is the overstuffed, flowery language. Golden Hill features some of the most egregious examples I can recall in recent years of using twenty words where just one will do. Some sentences stretch on for whole pages, and that is no exaggeration. I am honestly amazed at the positive reviews this received from professional critics, some lines were just flat-out embarrassing to read. A more ruthless editor could perhaps have sculpted this into something worthy of the reader's time, but right now it is difficult to recommend.

February - "The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I had initially become acquainted with the work of Taylor Jenkins Reid in 2020, with her novel Daisy Jones and the Six ultimately winning that year's Debbie Award. I was so impressed by that piece of work, that I just had to try another. While waiting for her new novel, Malibu Rising, to release (scroll down for that one) I was given the recommendation to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and boy am I glad I was.

As with Daisy Jones, this is a period piece dripping in mid century nostalgia, framed by a journalist's big-break interview with the reclusive and iconic (fictional) actress Evelyn Hugo. Hugo recounts the journey of her career and personal life: the glamour, the failed marriages, and ultimately the hypocrisy of Hollywood. It's all hugely entertaining, but most impressive is how Reid is able to use this period setting to tell such a relevant and important story. This author is quickly becoming my favourite author, possessed with a writing style that is so seamless and natural you could almost mistake it for non-fiction, and yet also manages to convey a great deal. 

March - "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is one of the all time greats of science fiction. Even those who are not familiar with his work will likely remember the films based on his work, such as Minority Report and Blade Runner. One of our lockdown series last year was the adaptation his seminal World War II alt-history novel The Man in the High Castle. While the series is a bit hit or miss, the premise was intriguing enough to inspire me to seek out the source material.

For those unfamiliar, this novel depicts an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II, set in a post-war America that is now divided between the victorious German and Japanese Empires who exist in an uneasy state of cold war. The premise is nothing less than iconic and for the most part Dick makes the most of it. High Castle is a masterclass in world building, dripping with detail and alarmingly plausible as a setting. What this novel lacks is a human touch. There is little in the way of an emotionally engaging narrative and I was surprised by just how much the TV series had to invent on its own in order to create one. The novel itself is really just the setting, brief snapshots of the lives of its characters, and little more. The bizarrely metafictional ending, too, is more intellectually rather than viscerally interesting. Still well worth a read.

April - "Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

This was one of the more hotly tipped works of literature for 2021 and it's everything one would expect from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, both good and bad. Ishiguro is known for his stridently intellectual premises that take the fantastical and relate them to the human experience. His latest work follows Klara, an artificial being who is purchased as a companion for a sickly child.

Ishiguro is a celebrated and Nobel prize winning author, but often his works can seem more like thought exercises than actual stories and that is very much the case here. It's the sort of work you read mainly on faith in the author, and I do wonder how much traction a novel like this would receive if it did not have the Ishiguro name attached to it.  More problematic is that I'm not sure Ishiguro really has all that much to say here that hasn't already been done elsewhere, better. The subject matter and even many of the specific twists are not exactly new or revolutionary in the genre. The result is a perfectly well written novel that is nevertheless disappointingly unmemorable.

May - "First Person Singular" by Haruki Murakami

A new collection of short stories from the beloved storyteller Haruki Murakami, all written in the first person singular voice on a range of topics from the surreal to the mundane. 

It is unusual to see a collection of fiction written around a technical, rather than topical, theme. The intent seems to have been to create that feeling of immediacy between author and reader and that works well with the subject matter. These stories range from those that are obviously fantastical, to others that could easily be autobiographical, and the first person voice leaves the blurring of that line rife for interpretation by the reader. As someone who has been somewhat left cold by his recent novels, I am pleased that his return to short-form narrative seems to have suited him well and FPS marks something of a return to form.

June - "Malibu Rising" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Another one from Taylor Jenkins Reid. What can I say, I'm a fan! Malibu is her new release for 2021 and Reid once again treads the familiar terrain of celebrity and show-business, this time following the fictional Nina Riva, estranged daughter of a world famous singer who she blames for the decline and death of her mother. 

I have to say this was probably my least favourite of Reid's novels to-date, less ambitious and groundbreaking than her other work. Fortunately that still makes it one of the best novels of the year. Few can write people in the way that Reid can, or create such a sense of time and place as she does. She's an excellent writer, and I promise this is the last one of her's on this list.

July - "The Startup Wife" by Tahmima Anam

This was a book that I was expecting to like. A hotly tipped author, writing about a subject that is near and dear to me. The Startup Wife is a technological fable of Asha Ray, brilliant software engineer and creator of an exciting startup endeavour with her visionary former high school crush (can't see how that could possibly end badly). Then things go a bit topsy turvy.

I can see what this novel is trying to do. It's about toxic masculinity, it's about manipulation, it's about the darker side of tech. It's very topical, very now, and I can see exactly what the author is trying to do. And that is precisely the problem. It's too on the nose, too obvious, too hackneyed. The satire is awkward and unnatural. The political soap-boxing on social issues is shoehorned into the narrative in a way that feels more like a Facebook post than a novel. The story is fine, interesting at times, but the whole thing just comes across as insincere and slightly amateurish.

August - "Injustice: Gods Among Us" by Tom Taylor

My graphic novel for the year. Sticking to last year's theme of Superman gone bad, Injustice premises what would happen if Superman simply snapped. The Joker accomplishes this by tricking Superman into killing his pregnant wife Lois Lane, and in his grief Superman breaks, kills the Joker and vows never to let something like this happen again by enforcing his absolute will upon the planet.

It's a great premise, one that treads similar ground as Red Son in exploring the dichotomy between order and free will and asking whether a peace that is enforced through repression is ever a true peace. How far is too far when promoting the greater good? Like all good stories in this genre, it boils down to a philosophical argument between its two moral antagonists, in this case Superman and Batman, but it is the subversion of these classic heroes, as well as numerous others from the DC pantheon, that makes this such a fascinating comic series.

September - "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir

Andy Weir is still something of a new quantity in mainstream literature, having struck big with his debut The Martian, but failing to hit the same heights will his follow up Artemis. He is best known for a writing style that contrasts a high level of scientifically and technically accurate detail with humour and easily accessible wit. With his third novel, Project Hail Mary, I was expecting to find more of the same. What I was not expecting was the best "buddy" story I have read in years.

Without wanting to give too much away, in PHM the sun is dying and, through an improbable series of events, high school teacher Ryland Grace finds himself stranded on a one-way mission to save the planet, using his seemingly inexhaustible scientific aptitude to puzzle his way out. If it all sounds a bit familiar to The Martian, don't worry. The similarities soon end and Weir takes the narrative in a very different and delightful direction. An exciting piece of work that I was sad to have finished.

October - "MADI" by Alex de Campi & Duncan Jones

This is a fascinating prospect. A graphic novel co-written by acclaimed film director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and Alex de Campi, a graphic novelist and filmmaker of some renown.

Set in the same universe as Moon (although there's little evidence of that in the novel), MADI is some classic cyberpunk sci-fi action. The story is enjoyable enough, if nothing spectacular, but it is the quality of the artwork that is the main drawn here. Each chapter is inked by a different contributor chosen from among the cream of the crop of contemporary graphic novels. Some of the images are really quite stunning.

November - "Vintage" by Maxine Linnell

Vintage is a delightful body swap story with a twist. Two girls living decades apart inexplicably find themselves living the other's life, providing an opportunity for much self-introspection and observational humour on generational differences.

This is a quick and breezy read with two compellingly written and relatable protagonists. Like all good stories of this nature, the precise mechanism for its fantastical conceit doesn't matter so much as the experience and what it can show us about ourselves. For those looking for a bit of a lighter read.

December - "The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich" by Daniel Ammann

And finally we have The King of Oil, Swiss journalist Daniel Ammann's seminal non-fiction exploring the life of the controversial, yet wildly influential trader March Rich. Rich rises from tragic beginnings against the backdrop of World War II, makes a name for himself in finance and practically invents modern oil trading. But as the saying goes, you don't achieve that kind of success without making a few enemies along the way and, in the case of Marc Rich, a few morally dubious decisions. 

It's an incredible story, but an especially remarkable work of journalism. Over thirty hours of frank and insightful interviews, Amman manages to obtain a unique insight into the mind of this global figure, and present those insights in a way that is both highly compelling and tells us much of the world in which we live.

So there it is. Twelve months in books. Can I keep it going another year? You bet, because reading is awesome.

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