james debate
james debate

Friday 23 December 2022

The tradition continues. 12 months, 12 books. You can consider this the warm up act for the much broader Debbie Awards coming in a few days' time. For now, it is The Ephemeric 2022 Book Review, a curated list by your faithful blog-enthusiast of whatever the heck I happened to feel like reading over the past year, old and new.

one book every month year challenge 2021 ephemeric

January - "Ghostwritten" by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is not for everyone. His work tends to be ambitious, densely packed, and experimental in form. For some, the challenging nature of his writing can come as a frustration, but those with enough patience are rewarded with a remarkable literary experience. 

Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, is twenty years old now, but remains as bold and incomparable today as it was upon release. A sprawling series of loosely linked episodic stories that takes the reader from the subways of Tokyo, to the Irish Isles, rural Mongolia and the nightlife of London. Topics range as widely as jazz music, bioterrorism, offshore banking, and artificial intelligence, to only scratch the surface. As remarkable as its audacity, is the ability of Mitchell to strike such a different voice and tone in each chapter. With most novels you can generally tell what a writer is thinking and where they are going, with Mitchell you have an author of such baffling unpredictability that he may as well be speaking another language.

February - "The Anomaly" by Hervé Le Tellier

HervĂ© Le Tellier's novel sold more than a million copies when it released in its native French, back in 2020. In 2022, the long-awaited English translation was published, becoming one of the year's most anticipated reads. An Air France flight encounter some massive turbulence on its way to New York. It lands, the passengers go about their lives for some time, some get married, some die, others hit significant life milestones. Three months later, the flight lands again, an exact duplicate of the previous flight, populated by exact duplicates of its passengers, who are none the wiser that they have lost three months of time, nor that their exact doppelgangers are already landed and living their lives as normal. 

The Anomaly reads like a high concept TV series, each chapter following a different character, only revealing itself to the reader in drip-feed as we follow the passengers of this flight, the events of their lives, and their reaction to the mysterious titular anomaly. It makes for a highly enjoyable and addictive read, so long as you don't overthink it. The central mystery itself is ultimately somewhat underwhelming, undermined by an eventual reliance on silly pop-science hooks and a lack of any real resolution. The characters' stories themselves are highly engaging, but feel uneven, with some clearly more substantial than others and several stories that seem peter out and remain unfinished. Ultimately, this is a novel that wants you to dwell on its themes rather than its plotline. If you can accept that then this is very much worth reading.

March - "How High We Go in the Dark" by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Sequoia Nagamatsu's debut novel was certainly one of the most hotly tipped for this year. An ambitious series of loosely connected stories set after a global pandemic reshapes society, taking place over centuries of time. The intent is to show how different people and humanity as a whole respond to such epochal occurrences, clearly inspired by recent real world events. Unfortunately, while I was very much looking forward to this, its execution is somewhat mixed.

How High We Go in the Dark is ambitious, certainly, but the stories are of variable quality. Some offer clever insights into human nature, such as the explosion of funerary and other ancillary services in the commercialisation of death. Others are optimistic, focusing on humanity's knack for solutions such as with the development of new technologies to enhance our biology or travel to other planets. Others are just bizarre, one story focused on a man's disturbing relationship with a talking pig-mutant comes to mind. It's mostly pretty good, but far too often, the interesting stories are too short and the forgettable ones too long. Far too often, the writer confuses "bleakness" for "depth and complexity". This is an interesting novel, but one gets the feeling that its hype comes more from having a topical concept than from actually being a fully realised and well executed piece of fiction. 

April - "House of Suns" by Alistair Reynolds

Taking a break from new releases, we have Alistair Reynolds' 2008 novel House of Suns. This one has been on my reading list for a long time, commonly recommended to me as one of the 21st Century's great science fiction novels. In 2022, I finally got caught up.

It certainly didn't disappoint. House of Suns is a vast space opera set in the far future where society is built around sprawling lineages of clones, known as shatterlings. House of Suns focuses on the story of two such shatterlings as they seek to uncover a conspiracy to commit murder against their entire lineage. What follows is a dazzling series of sci-fi concepts, all wrapped around a pretty damn engaging mystery novel. This is a long piece of work and requires some commitment, but for fans of ambitious science fiction, it is definitely worthwhile.

May - "Bullet Train" by Kotaro Isaka

Picking up on one of last year's picks that I never managed to find time for. Bullet Train is the Japanese mega-hit, translated into English last year and adapted into a Brad Pitt-starring Hollywood film this year.

It's exactly what you expect it to be. It's assassins on a train trying to kill each other. It's daft, it's funny, it's a little longer than it should be, but it keeps you turning the page. This is the one for those who want to read something without thinking too hard and have a good time.

June - "Sea of Tranquility" by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel is on a roll at the moment, with acclaimed novels The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven out in the last few years, one of which has been turned into a hit TV series, the other of which is about to be. In 2022, Mandel released her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility.

I won't go too deep into the plot for fear of spoilers, but this novel was a delight. A clever, witty adventure across time and space that nimbly balances its ambitious scope with intimate character-focused storytelling. It's impressive how far out there Mandel is able to go with some of her concepts without ever alienating the reader or feeling like its getting into too niche a genre. My only criticism is with the ending. For a novel that is masterfully paced throughout, the latter act of the story seems strangely abrupt. It's also very short for such an ambitious story at just 255 pages. The result is a novel that feels like it's building up to something it never quite reaches. After it does such a good job easing readers into the plot for the first 150 pages, I can't help but feel that there was more that could have been said once we got there.

July - "Perfect Golden Circle" by Benjamin Myers

Something light and breezy for a perfect summer read. Perfect Golden Circle is a folksy and nostalgic tale of two idiosyncratic hobbyists creating crop circles in the 1980s. It reminded me of an old BBC show, the Detectorists, itself a light and breezy series about two blokes mucking about in a field that strikes a very similar tone and scope to this novel.

Are they seeking fame? Fortune? Just doing it for the sake of it? Could be all of the above, but that isn't really the point of this novel. There is no grand plotline here, no run from the police, no rival cropcirclers. It's about the two men and their circles, their experiences, their friendship with one another. It's about the countryside, the folklore, the quirky locals. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Perfect Golden Circle is an extremely gentle read, effortlessly charming and hard not to enjoy. But at the same time, it is narratively slight, more about the journey than the destination. It's actually fairly impressive that it manages to work in spite of this.

August - "Stargazer" by Adam J. Rodriguez & Midjourney

My graphic novel for the year. Stargazer is a fairly routine sci-fi story on the surface: a group of soldiers fighting in Vietnam encounter a mysterious anomaly that forever changes their lives. What makes Stargazer more than just the sum of its parts, and the reason I chose it for this month, is how this graphic novel was created.

Stargazer may well be the first graphic novel where all of the artwork is entirely AI generated. Not a single frame of this novel was drawn by human hand, it was all created out of nothing by the AI platform Midjourney. This technology has come a long way in recent years, as many of you who frequent Twitter or Reddit will have seen. For an entire novel's worth of art to have been created by AI, with this level of consistency and quality, is a fine demonstration of just how impressive these tools can be.

September - "Yerba Buena" by Nina LaCour

This is the debut adult fiction novel from award winning YA author Nina LaCour. A story told over decades of two women and their troubled childhoods, who meet each other one day at the titular restaurant Yerba Buena, and romance blossoms.

This isn't a bad novel by any means, I just feel like it wasn't written for me. Much of the novel revolves around the upbringing each character faces in their childhood, which honestly struck me as quite niche and unrelatable. I'm sure some of these stories will be quite meaningful for some readers, but for me it just felt far-fetched and exaggerated. There's also an issue with the fact that the story bifurcates into two stories, one of which is clearly more interesting and filled with drama than the other. I found that whenever the focus switched to the one, I was really just waiting to switch back to the other. Not a bad novel, but ultimately a fairly by-the-numbers character drama.

October - "The Premonitions Bureau" by Sam Knight

Such an unusual book. The Premonitions Bureau is part sci-fi, part non-fiction, part history book. This debut novel is based on the true story of John Barker, the man tasked with running the Government's Premonitions Bureau to investigate the credibility of people claiming to have had psychic premonitions in the wake of the Aberfan disaster of 1966.

What follows is a "so crazy you can't believe it's true" account of Barker's research, the alleged psychics he met with and their stories. The novel fluctuates somewhat unusually between a descriptive historical account and a narrative depiction of these events, but while it is an odd duck of a text it somehow works. In fact this approach often feels essential, with Knight opting not to make his work any kind of evaluation of the subject matter, but rather to present the documented facts objectively for the reader to digest. Of course there are no psychic powers in real life, but some of the stories, the claims, the coincidences, are just so unlikely and so baffling, that you'll be intrigued and entertained nonetheless.

November - "Carrie Soto is Back" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I very much have to admire the work ethic of Taylor Jenkins Reid, who has now had three novels published in the space of three years, all of which have been pretty good, one of which is an all time classic.

Her latest, Carrie Soto is Back, expands the backstory of a small side character from her last novel, Malibu Rising. Carrie Soto's blink or you'll miss it appearance in that novel was fairly nondescript. You learn that she was a great tennis player and that she has a rotten temper, and that's about it. Carrie Soto is Back expands the character greatly. We follow Carrie on her rise from early childhood to becoming a legend of the sport, her retirement, and her attempt at an unlikely comeback. At its core, this is a story about unbridled ambition and the personal cost of greatness. While it may not be as remarkable a piece of fiction as some of Reid's other work, it is a very expertly crafted tale and one that will stick with me.

December - "Illuminations" by Alan Moore

And finally we have the first published work of Alan Moore to release in seven years, Illuminations. Best known for his work in graphic novels, including Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to call Moore a legend of the genre would be an understatement. His work has garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, earning a litany of accolades over the years.

Illuminations is not a graphic novel, but a first-ever series of short stories from Moore, spanning his decades-long career. Moore's writing has a reputation for intellectual complexity and psychological nuance, and this collection, to be frank, is every bit as weird as you'd expect. Surreal, enigmatic, mind-reeling. Each of these stories is wildly different from one another and probably from anything else you've read. Moore is nothing if not a true original, and that holds just as well in his fictional prose as it does in his illustrations. 

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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