james debate
james debate

Monday 18 December 2023

The tradition continues. 12 months, 12 books. The year is coming to an end and, don't you worry, The Debbie Awards are coming up. But before we get to that, let's warm up with The Ephemeric's now annual 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 - "Really Good, Actually" by Monica Heisey

Starting off with something on the light and relatable side. Really Good, Actually is the debut novel by Monica Heisey, known for her work as a writer on the hit comedy series Schitt's Creek. 

A novel about break ups, coping and moving on. That about sums it up really. This novel was fine. Not as funny, nor as clever as it tries to be. Most of RGA's 400 pages delve deeper into the neuroses and insecurities of its narrator, but these attempts at coping with pain through wit mostly come off as glib, while there's not enough of an emotional conclusion to really justify this journey. There's little here that's especially insightful or new, but for the right audience I can imagine this being worth a read. 

February - "In Ascension" by Martin MacInnes

We're not off to the best start here. On paper, Martin MacInnes' new novel In Ascension sounds like it should be right up my alley. A young deep-sea oceanographer in the Netherlands, whose unique skill-set sees them drafted into an experimental mission to investigate an anomaly in space. 

On the surface, it has all the makings of some classic speculative fiction in the style of The Abyss, Sphere and the writings of Emily St. John Mandel. The reality is quite different. MacInnes makes the bold choice of relegating this big, book-selling mystery to the background of the piece, focusing instead on the psychology and personal foibles of its characters. This in itself wouldn't be an issue if the characters were more compelling, but they are just so fragile and unstable that it simply doesn't ring true that such people would be chosen to go on such an important and delicate NASA mission. Add to this the unjustifiably glacial pacing, overly poetic language (eg: "Earth, the infinitesimally small star") and the frequent digressions into family history/traumas that adds little to the plot, and this just comes off as an unsatisfying read.

March - "Victory City" by Salman Rushdie

Now we're talking. Salman Rushdie's latest epic is a vast and ambitious tale of magical realism, following the life and legacy of a grief stricken young girl who is given the power to breathe an entire empire into existence, only to be consumed by it over the centuries.

The brilliance of Rushdie's work lies in how it captures the complexities of real society through its fantastical allegory. The tangled threads of politics and religion, the irascible nature of the many, and how the tendrils of history can be set by a person's actions. While the mechanics of this world may be far removed from our own, the depth and detail is such that you'll believe it's a real place (the faux non-fiction style helps), and that's pretty remarkable.

April - "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" by Gabrielle Zevin

Taking a break from new releases to catch up on one I missed from last year. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow was one of the hype novels from 2022, picked by many as the best book of the year. I can see what all the fuss was about.

This is a story spanning decades in the life of two game developers, their friendship, their creative endeavours, their romances. I went into this expecting some geeky references and a breezy romcom type story, but what's here exceeds that by far. This is multi-layered, superbly characterised, and always fresh, resisting the urge to fall into tropes. There's no drag in this novel, it keeps your attention riveted until the end. I can't recommend it highly enough.

May - "Biography of X" by Catherine Lacey

What starts off seeming like a nostalgic throwback to mid century glamour quickly develops into something of far greater ambition. This fictional biography of X, an iconoclastic artist and writer, ends up constructing an elaborate alternate history of the United States, as seen through the lense of its central premise. 

An absolutely fascinating piece of work that, for the first 75%, serves as a masterclass in worldbuilding, tracing the timeline of this familiar, but radically changed world, and how this affects our society and the cultural zeitgeist across the decades. If anything, it almost gets a bit too lost in its alternate history, under-developing the more personal narrative that runs through the life and career of its leading figure. This ultimately leads to an ending that sputters out to a degree once the (far more compelling) historical exploration run dry. Still an exemplary piece of writing. Thought provoking, clever, and embellished with a delightful attention to detail in its fictional bibliographies, photographs and source documents.

June - "Cuddy" by Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers is one of those writers that you either love or hate. To call him brilliant only tells half the story. Truly there are few authors out there who push the limits of the creative form in the way that he does, and Cuddy is a perfect example of this.

Myers' work tends to draw on local folklore and history. When done well (see last year's The Perfect Golden Circle) this can make for a delightful and charming viewpoint of bucolic Britain. Cuddy follows very much in this spirit. A retelling of the story of the hermit St. Cuthbert, unofficial patron saint of the North of England. Told in four distinct parts presenting a variety of viewpoints from different times and societal elements, but crucially all written in a completely different literary format. One part takes the form of an epic poem, another bursts into stream of consciousness. This is unfortunately part of the problem with this piece; different sections will appeal to different readers, and with such little continuity in narrative or style from one part to the next, it can be a challenge to stay engaged. While I generally like Myers' work, I struggled with this one. For me it is just too self-indulgent, too focused on the technical theory behind it, and not enough on what actually makes for a compelling story.

July - "The Ferryman" by Justin Cronin

This one was... almost a delight. Set on a seemingly idyllic island, founded by an elusive genius and isolated from the outside world. The Ferryman owes much to Ray Bradbury, as well as the dystopian science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. The island's citizenry enjoy long, fulfilling lives until the monitors in their arms detect that their psychological wellbeing drops below 10%, at which point they are ferried to an outside facility, where they are processed, reborn, and return to society fresh, memory wiped, and ready to start a new life. 

For the most part this works. The premise is intriguing and the writing is compelling from the start. This is mystery-box storytelling, but it's an example of it being done well. At least until the ending. I don't want to spoil anything, but it's a bit of a cop-out. Nevertheless, it's clear that the point of The Ferryman is not simply to solve the mystery. It's about loss and familial relationships, about power and institutional corruption. But when the framing device for these themes is such a compelling mystery, you can't help but be disappointed when the solution amounts to so little. This is nevertheless a thrilling and enjoyable ride, so we can begrudge it a slightly underwhelming conclusion.

August - "The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece" by Tom Hanks

I like Tom Hanks. Do you like Tom Hanks? Who doesn't like Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, the good folks at Knopf like him so much that they just didn't have the heart to edit his work. Hanks recently met with a positive reception for his work writing short stories, and TMoAMMPM was intended to be his big, awaited debut into longform fiction. It's not without its charm. 

TMoAMMPM is about the making of a movie, specifically an adaptation of a (fictional) graphic novel. Hanks wants you to see literally every aspect that goes into making a movie. Set across decades, we see the inspirations behind the graphic novel, explore the backstory and personal troubles of its writer. We see the studio execs, their thought processes, their compromises as the search for a commercial way to bring a product to screen. We see the Hollywood stars they cast, the scriptwriters who chop, change, subvert and combine the original source material with other works. We see how the sausage gets made, basically. Nothing wrong with that, but it drags. Unfortunately, much of this just isn't that interesting, and I say that as someone who is obsessed with the movie industry. There is so much unnecessary detail, so many characters introduced, their backstories explored in detail for no reason and then dropped. There's very little narrative drama or conflict. It's 450 pages, most of which are just random scenes being filmed, actors going into makeup, crew discussions. Someone needed to take a hatchet to this manuscript.

September - "The Wager" by David Grann

My word what an outstanding piece of work. The Wager is historical non-fiction, telling the true story of the HMS Wager, which shipwrecked in 1781. Several months later, a group of survivors return to Britain to be greeted as heroes. A further six months on, a second group of survivors return, accusing the first of mutiny and murder. David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has pulled off something remarkable here. Taking us step by step through the ill-fated voyage, from its conception and preparation, to the first weeks of the mission, the ensuing shipwreck and establishment of a makeshift settlement. 

I am not a big non-fiction reader, but then I never imagined that non-fiction could be as gripping or as exciting as The Wager. The attention to detail, the psychological insight, the historical context. It's all impeccable and really brings the reader into the story. For a non-fiction novel to have characters who are so vivid and well-explored, a setting and narrative that is so immersive, is truly impressive. 

October - "Pushing Ice" by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of the best writers of hard science fiction in the business today. I was impressed enough from my reading of House of Suns last year that I decided to follow it up with another of his works, one that had been highly recommended to me.

Pushing Ice is set in a mid-21st Century where Humanity has started to expand into the Solar System. A mining crew is suddenly diverted on a secretive mission, after it transpires that Saturn's moon Janus has left orbit and is quickly leaving the Solar System. What follows is a dizzyingly big adventure that takes the reader to the edge of the universe and thousands of years into the future. The elements of this story may seem familiar, but what sets Reynolds' work apart from that of his peers is his commitment to hard science and the strikingly fresh interpretation he applies to just about every concept. A fine, memorable novel.

November - "The Bee Sting" by Paul Murray

I picked this one for November on the back of some rave reviews and a nomination for novel of the year in some quarters. Rarely have such accolades led so far astray. On the surface, The Bee Sting is a pastiche of a classic familial melodrama. Husband in financial difficulties, estranged wife, children each with their own set of growing pains and struggles. Each chapter follows one of the four main characters as their disparate threads slowly build and intertwine into an intense finale. 

There's nothing wrong with the general narrative here, but neither is it as fresh or essential as it tries to be. Certain sections are also clearly more interesting than others. The wife's chapters in particular, which occupy much of the mid-section of the book, seriously drag down the pace, with almost 200 pages written in non-stop stream of consciousness. That brings us on to the length. At almost 700 pages long, this novel is an absurd slog that is simply not justified by the content. So much character backstory is unnecessary, so much is repeated ad infinitum. So many good story-beats are then milked to death with a 100 page follow-up that adds nothing. Towards the end, the novel tries to work in a little bit of climate anxiety to try and a bit of substance, but it's just kind of there, and not at all integrated into the rest of the work. Every so often, you see a novel that gets praised for checking boxes, rather than for its success as a whole. I suspect this is one of those novels.

December - "Yellowface" by R.F. Kuang

And finally we have Yellowface, a first foray into literary fiction from R.F. Kuang, an author best known for her work in the fantasy genre. Yellowface focuses on two writers, more frenemies than friends. One is an overnight success, the toast of the literary scene. A queer, ethnic minority, and a genius to boot. She ticks all the right boxes to become a media icon and a celebrity. The other faces much more of a struggle, unremarkable in both her talent and her backstory. The first writer dies suddenly, leaving behind a manuscript for her next masterpiece. The second writer is the only person who knows of its existence, and publishes it under her own name.

What follows is a delicious and darkly comic satire of the publishing industry and of modern culture in general. It's a funny, clever and compelling story that always feels on the verge of falling apart, and it just keeps you glued to the page. Yellowface was recently named Goodreads' novel of the year, and it's definitely a good shout that I highly recommend.

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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