Seeing the old year out with the memory of books

I promised one more old post. This one is also from BiblioBuffet. It was published 10 October, 2011. I thought it matched last week’s post and also it gives you some hints of the kinds of directions I might follow with my new series. Also, it’s very, very hard to go wrong with lists of ten.

Next week is a new year and a new post. This new year is entirely unpredictable, as we’re all sadly aware. The only certainty in it is that it will contain books. I hope, for all of you, that it also contains joy. Health, income, all the things would be terrific, too.


Lists of ten – again

I love lists. Today I have a list that’s ten items long. It could have been five, or a hundred, or even a thousand. I want to tell you ten things I love about books and illustrate them using some of my recent reading. Some of the recent reading is hot off the press, and some is less so. I’ve chosen books from the speculative fiction end of the reading spectrum. This might be because they reflect my reading recently. It’s just possible. Let me admit, up front, that I know some of these writers. I wish I knew them all, but I know just a couple. Once there is something in someone’s writing that you love, the likelihood is quite high that when you meet the person in question, that you will get on. I’ve only given examples from writers whose books struck me for these precise reasons before I ever met the writer in question.

My ten things:

1. I love exploring someone else’s politics through their fiction, especially when that fiction is very fine. My book for this is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. It’s all about freedom and the life of the mind and the limitations that we humans place upon ourselves. A lot of political books written in the 1970s have become dated, for life has changed since the seventies, but this one hasn’t become dated at all. It’s still vibrant and forceful.

2. Lyrical writing couched secretly inside a genre novel. It takes me by surprise and gives me a sense of the world being right, every time. So many of my favourite writers have this flavour in their writing: Hope Mirrlees, Alma Alexander, Mervyn Peake. My example for today, however, is Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains because he manages to take a non-Western universe and make it feel particular and its own, while still maintaining that lyricism.

3. Sometimes language and concept and personality infuse a writer’s work. Cordwainer Smith and Roger Zelazny are two writers who don’t seem to be able to write a word of fiction without that word somehow defining the universe anew. My example book for Zelazny is probably the least of all the writings of either author: The Last Defender of Camelot. It is, however, the one I re-read most recently. When I get some time, I intend to re-read the whole Amber cycle, plus Smith’s Norstrilia books. Which means, of course, that my example for Smith is Norstrilia itself. Time is the limiting factor. Their worlds and their words haunt me even when I don’t go near the writing for years on end.

4. The historian deep inside me (well, maybe not so deep, in fact maybe just the one who shares the same skin as the rest of me) loves a book that explores another world that breaks with what we accept as normal reality and that does so in such a way that the reader accepts things that are unacceptable or understands things that are usually conceptually too difficult to grasp. Not that I want to accept the unacceptable, but that I really like writing that’s strong backing world building that’s even stronger. Aliette de Bodard’s Harbinger of the Storm is today’s example of that. An Aztec society, with gods and belief systems and treatment of women that are very uncomfortable for me, and yet I must read and continue reading for she makes it real. Lord of the Flies was the same but more so ‑ hate the world, but must believe it can exist.

5. There is happiness in small things. Grumpy fairy tales and twisted minds. When I was a child I read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O. They rang truer for me than most other children’s literature at that time. The other book that I fell in love with (and have a lion’s head doorknocker right now, to prove that doorknockers are crucial to grumpy magical existence) is William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring. The bizarre fairytale is still my favourite book by Thackeray, and this despite me having read Vanity Fair at least four times.

6. There are warped and twisted books for adults, also. There is Shriek. An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer and there is almost anything by James Enge. I was reading Enge’s The Wolf Age and I finally realised that it’s not the sharpness of these books or even their views on society that make them so delightful, it’s their inventiveness. Enge’s imagination is always one step beyond my mind’s reasoning ‑ he manages to think of places I’ve never thought of and make fantasy worlds look fresh and new.

7. There are trilogies. There are sets of trilogies. What there are, too, are occasional authors who manage to write one big book that has been broken up into parts that make coherent narrative sense but that are nevertheless mere aspects of one big book. I always find one of these near my desk, for I have a weakness for them. Right now there are two books by Joe Abercrombie, and there is Ravensoul, part four of James Barclay’s Legends of the Raven.

8. I love it when the people of two worlds meet. There’s always a book in my vicinity that shows the clash of cultures or someone who was brought up in two worlds or is touched by two worlds and has difficult choices ahead. The most recent book that touched on this (and leaves it unresolved ‑ I must read the next book!) is Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Lure.

9. Steampunk! Right now, for me, steampunk is alone enough to make me look twice at something. From the reasonably standard romantic approach to machines and villains and changing worlds expressed in Andrew P Mayer’s The Falling Machine to the steampunk romance of Katie MacAlister, but the best encapsulation right now, for me, personally, is in the work of Cherie Priest.

10. New approaches to something that I thought I knew. Eye-opening and making the whole world new. This is the most exciting writing of all. My example is Kafakaesque, and I shall write about it properly in due course. Some books demand attention of their own, and this is one. The editors’ genius in placing Carol Emshwiller, Kate Wilhelm and Theodora Goss in the same volume make it something that shifts what thought I knew about short stories. This is my current reading, and it’s wonderful.

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