November: In which I traditionally read short fiction instead of novels
Suburban Glamour – Jamie McKelvie: Graphic novel – a simple, slightly dark, fun modern fairy tale, with beautifully clean art which doesn’t look flat.
The Enemy – Lee Child: I started this in October, which is why it appears in an otherwise novel-free zone. Set early in Jack Reacher’s career, it is military police procedural/murder mystery/thriller set on and around New Year’s Eve at the end of the cold war and the consequent reordering of priorities in the armed forces. I like Child’s straightforward plotting and style and the noir-ish narrator’s voice, and the setting was interesting and effective although suffered (for me) from the old contrast between a book set in a particular era and a book written then – so, Reacher is no Jack Ryan, but then who is?
Dreaming Again – Jack Dann (ed.): This is a very good anthology. It is a large selection of short speculative fiction stories by Australian authors, and necessarily I may appreciate many of them without falling in love with all of them – this isn’t meant to be faint praise by any means, but it has a wide range of styles and genres, some of which hit my buttons and some of which didn’t. I was struck, reading them, by the general high quality of the stories (over my scattered, unreviewed short story reading of the year), and there were many individual stories and elements of stories which really appealed to me. Memorable mentions include: Richard Harland’s “A Guided Tour in the Kingdom of the Dead” which I actually read last year and remember primarily because that was when I realised that of all the authors I’ve heard, Richard’s writing is the closest to how he speaks – it’s like having him sitting in my head talking; Adam Browne’s really quite attractive handling of tricky territory (Michael Jackson) in “Neverland Blues” – lovely colours in this one, too; a world of railways and crossroads which I’d like to see more of in Sara Douglass’ “This Way to the Exit”; the demonstration by Cecilia Dart-Thornton that an Australian setting could be combined with a rich and romantic style of storytelling; Jason Fischer’s peculiarly apt description of his own story “Undead Camels Ate Their Flesh” as “George Romero meets Mad Max”, although few of the reviews of this story mention the Danish invasion; the decayed richness of Peter M Ball’s “The Last Great House of Isla Tortuga”. And many more – there are some fabulous authors in this book, and it goes a long way towards redressing my irrational but recurring concern that all Australian speculative fiction is bleak, hot and post-apocalyptic (well, some of it is).
Dr Horrible one-shot comic: Great backstory for the main character of Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog (which, if you have not seen, you should track down!), and endearingly recognisable characters. Missed the one-liners and the music.
The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch – Neil Gaiman, ill. Dave McKean: Family history or fantasy, unless the two are necessarily co-existent. A very slow, elegant, unsettling comic/heavily illustrated story of decayed seaside arcades, family stories lost and changed by time and memory, and the rich dark world of Punch and Judy shows.
Phonogram – The Singles Club 2.1-2.4 – Kieron Gillen, ill. Jamie McKelvie, et al: I’ll probably do a more thorough review at some point in the future, when all issues are out and read, but I really like the structure of this – each issue retelling the same evening in the same club from the point of view of different characters whose stories overlap and illuminate each other – and McKelvie’s clean, graphic art as well as the glossaries of music and musicians referenced in the comic (after each episode I would sit down and educate myself on YouTube).
The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm – Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (ed.): An anthology of short stories drawing on tales of the fae from many countries – English, celtic, Japanese, Australian, Brazil… I loved this from the header illustrations by Charles Vess right down to the author summaries. Wild and tame and beautiful, heart-rending, ridiculous, many-coloured. Highlights included (but are not limited to): Delia Sherman’s personification of the NY Public Library catalogue system in “CATNYP”; Kelly Link’s tall, fabulous tale of second hand clothing stores and hidden kingdoms in “The Faery Handbag”; the terrible imprisonment of the denizens of Peter Pan’s island in Bruce Glassco’s “Never Never”; the hapless eponymous narrator of Patricia A McKillip’s “The Undine” (a story which managed to be at once tragic, hopeful and hysterical); the beautifully matter-of-fact main character of Gregory Maguire’s tale of age and war and home in “The Oakthing”; and the intense gentle nostalgia of Jeffrey Ford’s day-long “The Annals of Eelin-Ok”
Flight #1: Anthology of short comics acquired for educational purposes: with widely varying styles and some genuine beauty and humour.
December: In which Dickens slowed everything down
Canal Dreams – Iain Banks: Apparently the author doesn’t know quite what to make of it either. It was short. It was intriguing. It did make me want to read another of his books. And being able to describe it as a “literary novel with ninja cellists in Panama” is probably adequate justification for reading it.
The Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl: I bought this for one of my nephews and reread it on the train. It was my favourite Dahl growing up, and my mother disapproved (she says she didn’t care to support Dahl because his personal life was not consistent with being promoted as a family man, but for some reason I remember her taking against this book particularly). Now – it’s still problematic and fun and over-the-top, but mostly I was struck by how much David Tennant’s portrayal of Doctor Who reminds me of Mr Fox.
The Dragonfly Pool – Eva Ibbotson: This is the childrens/YA counterpart to Ibbotson’s adult A Song For Summer (as Journey to the River Sea is the counterpart to A Company of Swans) and so the setting (pre WWII England and Europe) and characters (mysterious brooding naturalists, stunning artist model/cooks, intense kind girls who want to mend the world) and the eccentric school will be familiar. I did not love it as much as A Song For Summer, but it was charming and fun and although it is a very recent novel it has, like so many of her non-fantasy novels, a wonderful early-modern, 1930s, I Capture the Castle, Enchanted April, sweet, slightly amoral, English feel, which fascinates me. Also, like DWJ, Ibbotson’s books always make me want to go outside and do things.
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold: I was surprised that I enjoyed this – it was so popular that I expected not to. But it was well-crafted, I liked the structure, the characters were enjoyable, it was interestingly a-religious in imagery and it explored some very intriguing viewpoints – by which I do not mean the murder-victim-point-of-view, but rather the exploration of the characters of her family as people beyond (or trapped by) the stereotypes of mother, father, sister (etc) of the murdered girl. It reminded me strongly of Dürrenmatt’s Das Versprechen (translated as The Pledge, I haven’t read it in English or seen the Sean Penn film, but the book is excellent), particularly in relation to the ending which in both books wasn’t traditionally happy, but was still satisfying. It’s not perfect (and the title is come by awkwardly) but very readable and enjoyable. The movie, however, managed to be nominally faithful to the book while completely abandoning the sense, internal logic and character development of the novel.