Continuing my very random trawl through some of the books I read this year…
Back at the start of this year I remembered that I’d never read any books by Clive James, and set out to rectify the oversight. Mr James was regularly on TV when I was in my teens, and TV was all the better for it, since he was an avuncular character with a vast cultural knowledge and the ability to write like angel while still appreciating the value of a cheap gag. Before his stint as a TV presenter he was a TV critic, and before that he had been a student at Cambridge, part of that generation of talented Australians which included Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. His sequence of autobiographies, beginning with Unreliable Memoirs, trace his path from the suburbs of Sydney to fame in London, and proved to be perfect reading for long train journeys, except for their unfortunate tendency to make me bellow with laughter. (There is a passage about go-carts in Unreliable Memoirs which may be the funniest piece of prose I’ve ever read.)
After the autobiographies I turned to the collected essays and reviews, and to Cultural Amnesia, a magisterial collection of essays about figures from the Twentieth Century – mostly writers and artists, mostly European, mostly new to me, and almost all living in the shadow of Hitler or Stalin (or both). Clive James has been rather famously at death’s door for several years now, but happily at time of writing he has yet to actually go through it, and continues to publish books (a fresh batch of essays this year, and his collected poems due in 2016). I’ll be reading all of them, and hoping for many more. (If you want to sample his writing, some of his essays and poems are available online at clivejames.com)
One new novel which I did make time to read this year was Emma Newman’s long-awaited SF debut Planetfall, which I’m pleased to see has been garnering some superb reviews. It’s a very powerful, tense, carefully plotted story of cult-like colonists who have arrived on an alien world, drawn by a mysterious structure called ‘God’s City’ which has somehow summoned their leader. But all is not well, and our unreliable narrator, Ren, is keeping a dark secret which could tear the whole fragile little society apart. It’s a beautifully controlled piece of storytelling, with a steady drip-drip-drip of hints and revelations to keep you turning the pages. Like a lot of good SF, it’s really about a journey to inner space, as Ren is forced to confront her own anxieties and buried memories. Someone on the internet said that it’s the story Prometheus wanted to be. It would certainly make an excellent movie, or excellent TV: small and claustrophobic, but built around the extraordinary visual centrepiece of the alien megastructure. But it makes an excellent book, too, and deserves to be very successful.
Emma’s husband Peter Newman also released a well-reviewed novel this year, The Vagrant. It’s less obviously my cup of tea, being set in a Warhammery fantasy world beset by grotesque demons. But into this Heironymous Bosch landscape strides a Clint Eastwood-ish loner with a large sword, a small baby and a comedy goat, and it all ends up being curiously charming, despite copious helpings of violence and derring-do. I reckon that by this time next year the Newmans won’t be able to move for awards in their house.
One of my favourite bits of the internet in recent years has been the corner occupied by Colin O’Leary’s superb blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame, where he sets out to write about every David Bowie song ever, in the order in which they were recorded. It’s been an ongoing labour of love for many years, and should have reached a triumphant conclusion this year, but for the fact that its subject has suddenly started releasing new songs (possibly in an attempt to annoy Mr O’Leary). The blog includes a certain amount of talk about chord progressions etc which I’m simply not qualified to judge, but the writing is excellent, the tone is affectionate (but not uncritical) and there are all manner of interesting digressions along the way, so that the entry on a very obscure and inessential cover version of the old Nat ‘King’ Cole classic Nature Boy, for instance, turns into a potted history of that odd song and its even odder writer. The blog is now partly available in book form, as a very large, very pink volume called Rebel Rebel, which covers everything up to Station to Station (a second volume, covering everything since, is scheduled for next year). Shorn of its hyperlinks and the (unusually civil) debates that go on in the comments, this is a very different reading experience to the online version, but it’s still a good book to dip into. I slightly regretted the absence of pictures, as one of the many pleasures of its parent blog are the cleverly chosen images, but of course they’d turn the print version from a large book into an unmanageably huge and expensive one.
Another large book which could do with more pictures is Simon Winder’sDanubia, a wonderful history/travel book about the Habsburg Empire. I kept having to hurry off to the internet to find pictures of the paintings, sculptures, churches and palaces which Mr Winder describes with such wit and enthusiasm. Charles V, the Defenestration of Prague, the War of the Austrian Succession… I studied a lot of this stuff in dry-as-dust old textbooks for A Level History, and promptly forgot it. If only Danubia had been available, I might have enjoyed the experience more, since it’s both very readable and very funny. It’s also very good at reminding us that the past was weird. I’m writing about a made-up empire of my own at present, and constantly on the look-out for odd details which I can swipe from history, but the court rituals and religious beliefs of the Habsburgs and their their ilk are often so potty that no one would believe them.
I’ve been writing a lot this year (finishing Railhead, writing Reeve & McIntyre 4, and starting Railhead 2, among other things). That sometimes means I can’t find much time to read. It definitely makes it harder to read novels – I find I’ve skimmed a whole chapter and taken nothing in because my mind has drifted away to whatever story I’m working on. But here are some of the books I have read and enjoyed this year.
I am still reading to Sam of an evening, and it’s still the best bit of the day. I think my favourite read-aloud book this year was Richard Adams’s Watership Down. I remember reading it when I was Sam’s age (in 1979, when the animated film came out) but I didn’t recall very much about it, beyond enjoying it. If you don’t know it, you could be forgiven for assuming it’s a twee children’s book about anthropomorphised rabbits, but it’s so much more than that. The rabbits are very human, but they don’t have clothes or human houses or anything, like Beatrix Potter characters; they live as rabbits live. But this isn’t a Tarka the Otter-ish attempt to get inside the minds and lives of real animals, either – these rabbits have their own language, societies and myths. The central characters, escaping from a doomed burrow, make a great cross-country oddyssey to establish a new burrow of their own. Once there, they come in conflict with a terrifying, totalitarian burrow run by the tyrant General Woundwort. Stalinist bunnies sound silly, I know, but they aren’t when you read the book, which is a) an edge-of-seat adventure story, and b) a kind of exploration of different social structures. It’s unease about eco-doom and authoritarianism is very 1970s, and its plucky, pragmatic, decent heroes are very British. It really deserves to be shelved alongside Tolkien as one of the great English fantasy novels of the 20th Century.
Favourite children’s books published this year include V. Peyton’s endlessly inventive and engaging post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story Silo the Seer, which I reviewed here, and Philip Womack’s compelling fantasy The Broken King, (technically from last year, but part of an ongoing trilogy).
I also enjoyed Matt Ralphs’s debut Fire Girl, a witch vs witch-finders adventure set in a parallel 17th Century England where the Civil War involved all sorts of magical goings-on. I’m a bit wary of this type of historical fantasy now, mainly because there seems to be so much of it that I wonder if it’s helping to edge actual historical novels out of the children’s market (the Civil War and the Protectorate are great settings for a story, but the only recent books I’ve seen which use them add magic to the mix). But it’s very unfair to criticise a book for not being a different book, and Fire Girl is as full of hissable villains, hair’s breadth escapes and awful monsters as young readers could hope.
A late entry is Matt Haig’sA Boy Called Christmas, which is hard to avoid at the moment as it’s in all bookshop windows and plastered in poster form all over the London underground. But happily the hype is justified. It’s a very charming and rather beautiful Father Christmas origin story, with superb black and white illustrations by Chris Mould. It’s quite dark in places, especially in the early chapters – as an adult I found much black humour to enjoy in young Nicolas’s dreadful childhood, but if you’re reading this as a bedtime story, and you have the sort of child who won’t let you knock off until you reach a happy or at least a hopeful bit, you’d better be prepared to make the first instalment quite a long one. Eventually good prevails, of course, and it ends up being very merry and very Christmassy indeed.
Finally, when Sarah McIntyre isn’t busy mucking about on stage with me or illustrating our books, she writes and draws her own picture books. This year she published Dinosaur Police, which is big, silly, fun and full of lovely little McIntyre touches (and pizzas which look good enough to eat). If you like dinosaurs, or, indeed, police, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
I’ve never much cared for end-of-the-world stories, but I’ve always had a soft spot for stories which skip the Bomb/plagues/asteroids/zombies and show us what happens a few hundred years later, when the initial unpleasantness has been forgotten and wonky new societies have arisen from the ruins. It’s quite a long tradition, which I suppose kicks off with Richard Jefferies’s After London and takes in things like The Time Machine, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Chrysalids, Riddley Walker and the Mad Max movies. It also includes Fever Crumb and Mortal Engines, which is maybe why V. Peyton’s debut children’s novel Silo the Seer comes advertised in some places as ‘for fans of Philip Reeve’.
At the start, Silo the Seer seems to be set in one of those worlds which is so post-apocalyptic it might as well be fantasy. The orphaned Silo lives in a shabby community of mediaeval mudlarks on an island in the Eastern Marshes, but dreams of one day travelling to the Capital City. He also has the power to see into the future sometimes – by magic, we presume. But once his journeys begin, we start to realise that the country he travels through is Britain, and not so very far in the future – there are weed-grown motorways, and the ruins of towns and cities still stand, although the people of Silo’s time are as spooked by the remains as the Anglo-Saxons were by Roman buildings, and prefer to live in their own ramshackle wooden settlements. In the woods prowl dangerous ‘zoo animals’, and off the coasts sail the pirate ships of the Raiders. As is so often the way in this type of set-up, the corrupt government dreams of regaining the lost power of the Ancients, and is recruiting ‘seers’ like Silo to help do it. But so far their only success has been rediscovering the rules of ‘goat ball’…
…they knew that there were clubs involved, a net at each end of the pitch, two eleven-man teams, and the winners were the ones who got the most goats. With this to go on they had been able to reconstruct the game very much as it must have been played in the time of the Ancients, and Silo could see before him a rectangle of smooth green grass with a goat pen at each end.
As that excerpt suggests, Silo the Seer‘s secret weapon is its humour, which is dry, funny, and threaded right through the story, brightening all its darker corners. In YA versions of this type of book there’s often a misanthropic suggestion that the Ancients (us) deserved to be wiped out because of our greed, violence, etc. etc. V. Peyton doesn’t bother trying to guilt-trip her young readers in this way, preferring to use the end of civilisation more as a jumping-off point for jokes and high adventure. It’s not out-and-out parody, but it’s close enough that it can get away with things which might seem too much like cliché or coincidence in a book that took itself more seriously. There are also some surprisingly elegiac passages, such as the journey along the old motorway, and the section when child labourers escaping from one of the government’s archaeological digs steal a raft and escape downriver into scenes reminiscent of Arthur Ransome or Kenneth Grahame. But the best comparison would probably be the early Harry Potter books, which had a similar combination of humour, likeable young characters and page-turning adventure. It ought to please young readers, older readers looking for something to read to young readers, and anyone else who enjoys this sort of thing. It ends with virtue triumphant, villainy punished, and loose ends tied up, while leaving plenty of room for Silo to have further adventures. I hope there will be many more.
(Silo the Seer will be published by Random House on 6th August 2015)