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Best Books 2015

Brief History of Seven KillingsI’m aware this is a little late in the piece, but I thought I might take a few minutes to pull together a section of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the past twelve months.

These sorts of lists always make me uncomfortably aware not just of how little I’ve read over the past twelve months, but how incoherent that reading feels, a feeling that, for various reasons, is even more pronounced this year than usual.
Yet despite all that I read a number of books this year that I admired enormously. And while I’m mostly going to try and avoid ranking books, one book that would sit near the top of any list I might make is Marlon James’ astonishing, virtuosic A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book that is as impressive technically as it is as a portrait of the complex ways violence and reverberates through both individual lives and history.

Similarly impressive was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a series I’m still working my way through, but which is as remarkable as everybody says, astonishing not just for their ferocious moral intelligence and psychological penetration, but for their almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict.

Buried GiantIt seems to have slipped off many people’s radar already, but I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s deeply strange excursion into post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant, Kevin Barry’s similarly strange and stylistically pyrotechnic portrait of John Lennon lost in rural Ireland in 1978, Beatlebone, and Anne Enright’s marvellous The Green Road (the second chapter of which is worth the price of admission alone). Likewise I very much enjoyed the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My StruggleDancing in the Dark, not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s the book where the series’ fictional and autobiographical elements begin to enfold each other in fascinating ways, and in so doing begin to bring the complexity of Knausgaard’s larger design into focus. And although I’ve come to it late, John Williams’ Stoner is exactly as brilliant as everybody says it is.

I also very much admired Max Porter’s wonderfully odd and richly poetic exploration of grief, Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Tom McCarthy’s archly brilliant Satin Island and Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-Shortlisted The Year of the Runaways. And while it was perhaps slightly less brilliant than Life After Life, I loved Kate Atkinson’s wonderfully inventive exploration of historical contingency and the immensities a simple life can contain, A God in Ruins. And while I’m not sure whether it quite came off overall, I’m not sure I read a book over the past twelve months that was smarter, funnier or stylistically exciting at a line by line level than Nell Zink’s Mislaid.

Thing ItselfOver on the genre side I adored Dave Hutchinson’s smart, politically savvy near-future political thriller, Europe at Midnight, Kelly Link’s brilliant Get In Trouble and Paul McAuley’s wonderfully accomplished Something Coming Through, and very much enjoyed China Miéville’s dazzling Three Moments From An Explosion, Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde and Naomi Novik’s magical Uprooted. I also loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, a book that brought her fabulous Ancillary series to a wonderfully satisfying, emotionally resonant and fascinatingly subversive conclusion, and although I’m not quite sure whether it’s technically a 2015 or a 2016 book, Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is a triumph: a deeply strange, extremely funny and metaphysically thrilling riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics (trust me – it’s great). And finally, while it’s a bit over a year old, I adored Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor (don’t be put off by the title: it’s wonderful).

Six BedroomsI read fewer Australian books than I should have, but of those I did I very much admired Mireille Juchau’s portrait of an ecologically fraying landscape, The World Without Us, and Tegan Bennett Daylight’s brilliantly observed and exquisitely painful Six Bedrooms, Charlotte Wood’s ferocious The Natural Way of Things and (although it’s a couple of years old), Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife.

I also read less non-fiction than I should have, and a lot of what I did read was things I’ve read before (Tim Dee’s wonderfully expansive Four Fields, Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure), but I found time to knock over Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial Landmarks, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Hal Whitehead’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins and I loved Thomas Farber’s wise, witty and delightfully sideways Here and Gone. And while neither are 2015 books I also very much enjoyed Helen MacDonald’s 2006 contribution to Reaktion’s Animal series, Falcon, which is a rather drier affair than H is for Hawk, but fascinating nonetheless (I also recommend her closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year) and Rebecca Solnit’s marvellously spiralling The Faraway Nearby.

Unfaithful MusicOn the more technical side I very much enjoyed Mckenzie Wark’s notes toward a theory for the Anthropocene, Molecular Red (his unpacking of the politics and architectonics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a must-read for anybody interested in Robinson). And while it needed a much firmer editorial hand (and, I suspect, to be broken up into two different books), Elvis Costello’s memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is as funny, savage and fascinating about songwriting as you’d expect, and while too long and oddly unreflective in some regards, often surprisingly moving, especially when it comes to Costello’s relationship with his father.

On the graphic side of things I hugely enjoyed Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, and I continued to love every panel of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel, Charles Soule and Javier Polio’s She-Hulk, Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s wicked and wise Loki: Agent of Asgard, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s joyous Daredevil and the endlessly delayed conclusion to Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye.

Ms Marvel

 

As I said in The Weekend Australian a couple of weeks ago though, the two books I loved most this year are a pair of novels that at first blush seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. The first, Sarah Hall’s exultant, lyrical The Wolf Border, focuses on a plan to reintroduce wolves to the north of England, the second, Kim Stanley Robinson’s dazzlingly expansive Aurora, follows the struggles of a group of colonists sent to Tau Ceti half a millennium from now, but look a little closer and it becomes apparent both are books deeply engaged with a series of questions about the ethical and imaginative dimensions of a world whose systems have been fundamentally and irrevocably altered by human activity, yet which simultaneously try to look beyond the reality of the present day in order to reclaim the imaginative possibilities of the future,  quality that, as 2015 draws to a close, seems not just important but necessary.

 

 

 

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Inside the imagination of China Miéville

At Perth Writers’ Festival a few weeks back I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with the depressingly brilliant, charming and multi-talented China Miéville. If you’re in Australia and you’re free at 11:00am tomorrow, it’ll be screening on Big Ideas on ABC 1, otherwise you can check out a preview below and watch the full interview or download video and audio versions of it from the Big Ideas website. It should also be available to Australian viewers on ABC  iView later this week as well.

 

A Form Guide to the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The following piece appears in today’s Weekend Australian and is reproduced with their permission.

Over the past 40 years the Man Booker Prize has established itself as the premier literary award in the English-speaking world. The reasons for its ascendancy are complex, especially in an Australian context, yet there’s little doubt that much of its success lies in the skill with which it has been managed over the past 40 years. Former administrator Martyn Goff’s 35 year tenure was in many ways a masterclass in media management, which saw judges selected with an eye to controversy, rumours of scandal and disagreement carefully leaked and tensions between judges and nominees inflated, all with an eye to turning the award into the annual event it has become.

Current Booker administrator Ion Trewin may lack Goff’s hauteur, but he’s every bit as deft a showman. Last year saw a nailbiting finish between Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, both favourites after some judicious comments about the vigour of the comic novel, while 2009 formalised the transformation from writer’s writer to international superstar of one of contemporary literature’s most intelligent and gifted writers, Hilary Mantel.

This year’s award has been distinguished by two things. The first was the appointment of former MI5 Director-General Dame Stella Rimington as Chair of the Judging Panel. Rimington, whose novels are reputed to have been written with considerable input from at least two ghostwriters was always going to be a controversial choice, both because of her lack of literary credentials and because she seemed an awkward choice given the avowedly literary tastes of fellow judges such as Telegraph Books Editor Gaby Wood and novelist Susan Hill.

Friction between judges is part of the game of course. But it was Rimington’s comment that the judges wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them” that provoked the real controversy.

Rimington’s comments could probably be dismissed as yet another piece of the theatre that always accompanies the Booker season, except for the fact that this year’s shortlist, comprised of Julian Barnes’ splendidly controlled and subtle The Sense of an Ending, Carol Birch’s Goldingesque Victorian shipwreck novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, Patrick DeWitt’s wonderfully weird noir Western The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan’s account of black jazz musicians in Nazi-occupied Europe Half Blood Blues, Stephen Kelman’s vernacular novel of childhood wonders and loss, Pigeon English and A.D. Miller’s Russian thriller, Snowdrops is perhaps most charitably described in the terms chosen by the novelist Paul Bailey, as “the most eccentric of recent years”.

Eccentricity needn’t be a negative, of course. Indeed it’s not difficult to imagine a shortlist distinguished by brave, unconventional choices that celebrated the best of genre writing on the one hand or the most exacting literary standards on the other. Yet this year’s shortlist is neither of those things. Instead it is an incoherent collection of mostly middling novels with few claims to either popular appeal or literary brilliance.

Of the six the one that has attracted the most attention is undoubtedly Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Barnes’ eleventh full-length work of fiction and the fourth to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending comes hot on the heels of last year’s thematically-linked collection of short stories, Pulse, and 2008’s extended essay about mortality, Nothing to be Frightened of.

Like all of Barnes’ work, The Sense of an Ending is distinguished by its deceptively effortless formal perfection, its apparent simplicity disguising not just a plot of considerable elegance but a delicate and pleasingly subtle interplay with many of Barnes’ earlier novels (interestingly Pulse exhibited many of the same features). It is also, perhaps curiously given Barnes’ lifelong fascination with French culture and French literature in particular, an almost quintessentially English novel, grounded not just in the rhythms of English middle-class life, but a very English fascination with the tenets of empiricist philosophy and logic.

Its title deliberately invites us to read it as a sort of summation, a final chapter in Barnes’ illustrious career. And in one sense it is precisely that, reworking many of the interests and motifs that have sustained his fiction and non-fiction across the past 30-odd years. Yet it is also very obviously the work of a writer in full flower, exhibiting not just total control of the craft of the novel, but an intellectual and emotional rawness that has sometimes been lacking in Barnes’ earlier writing, neither of which suggest either a diminishing of Barnes’ talent or any imminent farewell to fiction.

Although a very different book in many ways, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops is, like Barnes’ novel, essentially a book about failure, and more particularly a certain kind of male obtuseness. Set in Russia during the mid-2000s, it tells the story of Nicholas, a no longer quite young British banker whose involvement with a Russian woman leads him to compromise himself personally and professionally.

Miller is a former Moscow correspondent for The Economist and it shows in both good ways and bad. On the plus side Snowdrops has the immediacy of the best journalism, capturing not just the decadence and violence of the Russian boom but the moral ambiguity of the ex-pat whose pay cheque depends upon helping facilitate the pillaging of the country’s resources.

Yet at the same time it too often seems to be all surface, a skilfully structured, well-written exercise with none of the heft of real fiction. And, more deeply, it suffers from the not inconsiderable problem that the psychological device upon which it turns, namely Nicholas’ total obliviousness to the machinations that surround him, is fundamentally implausible.

If Snowdrops is a novel exploring one sort of moral wasteland, the third book on the shortlist, Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English explores a rather different one. Set on a housing estate in south London, it tells the story of 11 year-old Harri Opoku, a recent Ghanian immigrant who becomes embroiled in the search for the killer of another boy.

Like Emma Donoghue’s Room (or indeed Roddy Doyle’s Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) Pigeon English seeks to contrast the innocence of its narrator’s reactions with the complexities of the world they inhabit. And, like Room, it depends in no small measure upon its author’s capacity to capture the rhythms of its young narrator’s voice.

Whether the voice works or not is at least partly a matter of taste: certainly to my mind it seems too writerly to ring true. Yet despite the novel’s unsentimental engagement with the realities of life on the estate, the drugs, the violence, the social breakdown, there is a deeper authenticity missing as well, the absence of which makes the book feel oddly worthy, perhaps closer in tone to a certain sort of Young Adult Fiction than a fully-formed adult novel.

That being the case it would be tempting to see Pigeon English’s inclusion as a function of its undoubted topicality. Yet I suspect its inclusion has less to do with its relevance to recent events and more to do with its stunning final pages, in which an event as devastating as it is unexpected transforms an otherwise unremarkable book into something considerably more interesting and powerful.

Of the three remaining books on the shortlist the one which most resembles what one might regard as a Booker book is undoubtedly Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie. Based on an account of a boy’s encounter with a tiger on a London street in the early nineteenth century and Owen Chase’s extraordinary account of the aftermath of the sinking of the Whaleship Essex and the crew’s descent into cannibalism and murder (which also served as one of the sources for Moby Dick), it might at first blush seem to be a reasonably conventional historical novel, albeit one drawing on surprisingly confronting material.

Yet Birch’s novel is considerably less conventional than it might at first appear. For as the book leaves London behind and heads for the tropics the writing takes on a febrile, unsettling intensity, shot through with intimations of revelation and madness, even as the book circles in towards the act of violence at its heart.

But impressive as these latter sections are, the novel still struggles to mark its subject out as its own. The problem is not a lack of control, instead it is that the source material, and in particular Chase’s account is so powerful its truth cannot help but overshadow even the most effective fictional treatment.

The last two books on the shortlist, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers are both by young Canadians, and are both, by virtue of their largely American casts, fairly unusual contenders for an award reserved for Commonwealth writers.

Edugyan’s novel tells the story of a group of black jazz musicians caught up in the aftermath of the fall of Paris in 1940. It’s an interesting and original subject, not least because the differential treatment of the German-born and American members of the group suggests something of the complexity of life under German rule, and Edugyan’s rendering of the voice of the narrator, the bass player Sid, in all his bitterness and regret, is never less than impressive. And while there are a few too many sequences which feel under-dramatised, there is an integrity and intelligence to the whole it’s difficult not to respond to.

Yet to my mind it’s the deWitt novel, The Sisters Brothers, that’s the real find on the shortlist. A very contemporary reinvention of the Western novel, it tells the story of the notorious assassins, the Sisters Brothers as they set out on what will turn out to be their final mission.

Narrated by Eli, the more thoughtful of the pair, the novel is at once deadpan and oddly hallucinogenic, capturing both the randomness and violence of the brothers’ lives, and Eli’s yearning for release, not just from his brother and their life together, but from the failings of his own nature. It’s also utterly contemporary in a way none of the other books on the shortlist are, its dark humour and contained surrealism of a piece not just with the best of contemporary film and television, but with less exalted forms like the graphic novel and the comic.

More deeply though, The Sisters Brothers shows up both the conservatism and the incoherence of this year’s shortlist. Whether it deserves to win seems to me to be an open question: I enjoyed it enormously and admire many things about it. Yet it is difficult to see how a panel of judges that shortlisted it could fail to even longlist China Mieville’s similarly generically playful and protean Embassytown.

It’s a question that becomes even more vexed when one considers some of the more conventional choices that didn’t make the cut. Of course shortlists are always as much about exclusion as inclusion, but even allowing for Rimington’s inane insistence on readability as a guiding principle it is extremely difficult to understand how any intelligent reader could omit Alan Hollinghurst’s sprawling The Stranger’s Child or the conclusion to Edward St Aubyn’s dazzling Melrose cycle, At Last in favour of Snowdrops, or Michael Ondaatje’s wonderfully weightless and subtly sideways fictional memoir The Cat’s Table in favour of Pigeon English.

But in the end the shortlist is what it is, and the question is not what should win, but what will win. If I were a betting man I’d say the safe money was on Barnes, not just because the book itself is so impressive but because it feels like Barnes’ year. But if I had a few dollars to back an outsider I might put them on the deWitt or even the Birch. And while I was there I’d start winding up my righteous indignation in case Pigeon English wins. Because in the end the Booker isn’t really about the winner, it’s about the guessing game and the debate it generates, both of which it manages to deliver in spades, year after year.

Embassytown

Just a quick link to my review of China Miéville’s Embassytown in this morning’s Weekend Australian. As the review hopefully makes clear, I think it’s Miéville’s best book by some distance: brilliantly conceived, powerfully imagined, thrillingly fertile, and while I do think there’s a slight slackening in the second half, when the narrative frame opens out to take in the large-scale breakdown of the society it depicts, the first half is so good it hardly matters. All of which is a roundabout way of saying just read it, it’s fabulous.

If you’d like to know more about the book you might want to check out Justine Jordan’s profile of Miéville in last week’s Guardian, or my reviews of his last two novels, Kraken and The City and the City. And I know I’ve linked to it before, but if you’re interested you can also read an excerpt from the first chapter on the Tor website.

Castaways, Menageries and Horses

Apologies for the extended break in transmission, which is attributable to too much travel, too much work and a week in bed with some kind of virus. Since I’m still trying to get the edits on Black Friday done and finish a story for a collection that will be out later this year, as well as trying to catch up on all the work that didn’t get done while I was away and sick, things might stay a little quiet around here for a few weeks. But I’ll definitely be getting a few things up, in particular a piece on Wayne Levin’s gorgeous new book, Akule, which I reread over the weekend, and is simply amazing.

In the meantime, you might want to check out my review of Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, which appeared in The Weekend Australian on Saturday. I have to confess to not having read Birch before, but there’s a lot to like in this one (not surprisingly it’s recently turned up on the longlist for this year’s Orange Prize), not least the way it manages to eschew the fairly prosaic mode of much historical fiction in favour of something much more vivid and particular. Spookily it’s also a riff on the wreck of the Whaleship Essex, a story I was complaining was following me around just the other day.

Further afield Faber have uploaded a terrific recording of Willy Vlautin reading a new story based on the characters from Lean on Pete, which comes complete with music by Richmond Fontaine. And if you’re looking for reading matter I can thoroughly recommend both Lauren Beukes’ Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlisted Zoo City (urban fantasy, set in South Africa, with gangsters, guns and muti), which is both very stylish and a lot of fun (you can read the first chapter online) and China Mieville’s new one, Embassytown, which is out soon (I’m reviewing it, so I can’t say much beyond it’s one of the best things I’ve read in quite a while). Again the first chapter is available online.

And finally, I know it’s been out for a while, but this track from The Duke and the King’s new one, Long Live the Duke and the King, still rocks my world.

Magic squids and mid-life crises

Just a quick note to say I’ve got reviews in both The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald this weekend. The first, in The Australian, is of Michael Cunningham’s rather underwhelming new novel, By Nightfall. As someone who admires a lot of Cunningham’s work (especially his last book, the gloriously weird Specimen Days) I wanted to like By Nightfall more than I did, but in the end it’s just too finely wrought and exquisitely felt to ever quite come to life.

The second, in The Sydney Morning Herald, is of China Miéville’s Kraken. Some of you may have seen my review of the nominations for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel a few weeks back, which talked a bit about Miéville’s last book, The City And The City, which went on to share the Hugo with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. As I said in that review one of the things that’s fascinating about The City And The City is how thoroughly it expunges the glitter of Miéville’s earlier work, and in that sense Kraken reads like a return to more familiar territory for Miéville (if a writer as restlessly imaginative as Miéville could ever be said to have a “territory” in any meaningful sense). But it’s also a much more light-hearted and playful book than many of Miéville’s earlier books, a quality which is oddly disarming at first but which (at least to my mind) means the book never seems prepared to fully commit to its own existence in some deep sense.

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Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize was announced this morning in London. Since the judges seem to have got the notable omissions out of the way when they assembled the longlist (Ian McEwan, Martin Amis) they’re not the big news this time round, though the two books many will note the absence of are Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Not having read the whole list I’m not really in a position to guess at the likely winner, but I would say that Emma Donoghue’s fictional reworking of the Natasha Kampusch story, Room, has been attracting a lot of attention, and while Tom McCarthy’s C has probably slipped under many people’s radar, if it’s made it to the shortlist I think it’d have to be the dark horse candidate. It’s also pleasing (not least because I’m an admirer of the book) to see Peter Carey shortlisted for Parrot and Olivier in America.

The six books on the shortlist are:

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Emma Donoghue, Room
Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
Andrea Levy, The Long Song
Tom McCarthy, C

In other award-related news, Sunday saw the announcement of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was split between China Mieville’s The City and the City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a result which seems about right to me.

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