I was fairly poor at reading last year (by which I mean I didn’t read as much as I should, not that I found reading tricky in itself). My plan is to make up for it this year as much as I can. No idea what that will mean in reality, but in an attempt to shame myself a little I’m planning to post lists, comments, reviews etc here as and when I finish something … too late, though! Too late! Because, you see, I’ve finished a few already.So join me as we play catch up.
1) The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang
You can actually read this online here, although, if you do, it would then be courteous to head out and buy some of Chiang’s stuff, which is usually short (this novella is his longest work) and invariably rewarding. He’s a writer who prizes quality over quantity, which means that pretty much every one of the handful of stories he’s produced has been nominated for – and often won – major awards. The Lifecycle of Software Objects may be his best work so far. It’s an entirely believable take on the development of artificial intelligence – full of imagination, insight and, well, intelligence. Like many of his stories, it’s also grounded in the human and ultimately very moving in its own quiet, unsentimental way. If I read anything better this year I’ll be surprised. So thoroughly recommended that there aren’t words to express it.
2) Unidentified Novel, by Nameless Famous Writer
If you’re reading this and wondering if Nameless Famous Writer is you – trust me, it isn’t. The main reason for not naming this person (who I don’t know) is that I didn’t finish Unidentified Novel and so it wouldn’t really be fair on either of us. Because it’s possible – for example – that the plot (which revolves around rape) gathers some weight or import in the sections I haven’t read, and I wouldn’t want to look stupid having missed some deep artistic point at the end of it all. For our purposes here, it’s sufficient to observe that the percentage I did read wasn’t all that great … and … actually, let’s not gild the lily here. Several times, I looked up from this book and wished I was dead. Twice – twice – I considered the possibility that I actually might be dead, and on both occasions I felt only relief. Why did I carry on? Well, we return to that ‘not reading enough’ thing. Because, you see, it was guilt that made me persevere – eyes throbbing, heart increasingly heavy with shit – a kind of must finish, must finish impulse. And then I had a revelation. Stop this, the revelation told me, and read something else. So simple; it was a wonderful sensation. At that point, I almost happily threw Unidentified Fucking Novel across The Fucking Room – and probably would have done if I hadn’t purchased The Fucking Thing on My Fucking Kindle. But even given that it was touch and go.
3) Splinter, by Sebastian Fitzek
Plot-wise, this is one of those books. Psychological trickery. Is he mad or isn’t he – that kind of thing. Splinter involves experiments to erase painful memories, and a main character whose wife has died and yet suddenly seems to have come back to life, and who finds someone else is living in his apartment … and so on. You get the picture. Your patience with this book will therefore correspond precisely with your patience for this particular mode of storytelling. Things to observe: a) in this type of story pretty much anything can be made to happen, so it tends to be very twisty indeed, and Splinter is no exception; b) your lasting impression of the story will probably depend upon the quality of the final reveal, which validates and – impossibly! – explains all those twists. Splinter is a fast and propulsive read, containing lots of short chapters with cliffhanger endings that seem impossible – (!) – to resolve, and it just about pulls the whole thing off. In the end, there are only a few ways this sort of story can resolve, and between this and Therapy I wonder if Fitzek has now basically covered all of them. But he can certainly write. Splinter has an undeniable anarchic energy to it and is worth your time. Especially given what we discussed a moment ago under point 2.
4) The Razor Gate, by Sean Cregan
Or by John Rickards, as some of us know him, but the Cregan name differentiates his vaguely SF, industrial, biohazard noir – this and last year’s The Levels – from his earlier crime thrillers. There’s a danger in reviewing your friends, but The Razor Gate is certainly his best work so far. The plot involves a new serial crime – people (known subsequently as “Clocks”) are abducted at random and implanted with tiny biological bombs that will kill them in exactly one year’s time. They know it, and yet nobody can stop it. It’s an idea ripe with potential both for philosophical reflection and for action, and John delivers both here in spades, as a reporter attempts to discover the truth about the people behind the “curse”, and a rogue cop hunts for the same in order to save his Clock girlfriend. But what impresses even more about the book is the atmosphere and setting: the world-building. It’s all so coherent, so pungent (in a good way), without ever being over-bearing. You frequently want to pause the story and just look around – learn a little more about your surroundings – and the book is so well-realised you get the impression John already knows stories about every location here, no matter how briefly mentioned, and every single character.
Basically, this is great stuff. You should read this. It’s a fucking crime of culture that book 2) – say – is a massive bestseller, whereas this, with all its invention, all its passion and obvious intellectual investment, is not.
5) The Red Hourglass, by Gordon Grice
Not much to say about this. I’ve read it a few times before, and I make a point of reading it again every so often. It’s a non-fiction account of a man’s (very practical) interest in various predators – spiders mostly – and gives a unique and horrifying glimpse into the natural world and how cruel it can be. Great if horrible stuff – the tarantula hawk wasp is the subject of nightmare. Cleanses the palette, what can I say.
6) Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane
Well, who doesn’t like Lehane? Nobody sane, obviously. He’s a phenomenal writer, and yet this, the latest (and likely the last) installment in the Kenzie/Gennaro series, and, more specifically, a direct sequel to Gone Baby Gone, still leaves a somewhat mixed taste in the mouth. Here, very briefly, is what I thought was wrong with it. Many of the characters espouse at length on some social concern, until it begins to feel like Patrick is meeting a series of cartoon stereotypes who suddenly become very erudite when they have Stuff To Say About The Real World. At such times (which we’ll note remain smart and entertaining) the author’s touch feels a little heavy, a little too overt. And the whole story is slightly ludicrous. At least one plot point in particular – something Patrick is told at the school – makes literally no sense in terms of that character knowing it and presenting it as they do, and every sense in driving Patrick on, the reader with him. I suspect there are more, though I’m not inclined to over-think it.
Because ultimately the good stuff outweighs all that by a huge amount. Lehane’s prose is typically excellent, although what I’m really saying by that is he has a fantastic ear for banter. The dialogue sizzles, in an idealised nobody-in-real-life-talks-that-way manner, and Patrick’s first person narration is no exception. On every level, this is readable; you will not put this down if you start. It’s well-constructed, gripping. Finally, it’s moving … look, if it seems like I’m damning with faint praise here then I don’t mean to be. It’s a good, entertaining novel, thoroughly enjoyable – but that’s all it is. In terms of weight, this isn’t realistic in the way The Wire is meant to be, and it isn’t a stunning, resonant work of literature on the level of Mystic River. An apt comparison for this side of the pond might be something like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – which I liked very much indeed, and enjoyed a huge amount. And I liked and enjoyed this book very much indeed as well.