Well I suppose there’s one bright thought: 2023 cannot be worse than 2022. Frankly, when you have experienced the death of the one person who means more to you than anyone else ever could, it is hard to imagine how things might go further downhill from there. The great demons of our existential despair – death, disease, destitution – seem pretty tame in comparison to the psychic pain I have endured, and continue to endure. I mourn Maureen, and I will surely do so for the rest of my life, but at the same time, to honour her memory, to honour everything that our life together meant to us both, I have to start finding some way back into life. At the moment – baby steps – I am doing that mostly through small routines, small habits.
One such fairly meaningless little habit that I have maintained every year for longer than I care to count, is my New Year practice of recording all of my reading and writing of the previous twelve months. Even this bears testimony to the wretched character of the year. 2020 and 2021, the years of pandemic and lockdown and the psychological dis-ease that swept over us all, had seen the number of books I read fall off a cliff. From well over 70 books read in 2019 (a fairly typical year), the number plunged to less than 60 in 2020, and less than 40 in 2021. 2022 was supposed to be different, in earnest of which I set out to write here about every single book I finished, a practice I was able to maintain until March.
But the world changes in a moment, a second can mark the irreparable transition from one reality into another. One morning in March Maureen turned her head and there was a sharp crack in the neck. That was the first indication we had of the cancer that had already spread from her breast to her bones and her liver. The next six months was a descent into hell, hopes raised and dashed, cancer retreating and returning, other infections cruelly weakening her so that by the end she was too weak to take the chemotherapy that might have extended her life. She died in September, and during that stretch from Spring to Autumn I continued to read, but not much and it was an almost insuperable labour, and though I dutifully noted each title as I finished it, there are books in there that I barely remember. And since then, the final quarter of the year? I have continued to struggle with reading. I have written reviews, most of which are quite substantial (though I can make no claims for their quality), but it is only now, in the last week or so of the year, that I am beginning to rediscover how to read for pleasure.
So this year the total of books finished is roughly the same as last year, though the bulk of that reading came in those first three months when the world still seemed normal.
In some ways, I suppose, it should have been a triumphant year. I actually had two books published, which hasn’t happened before and is unlikely ever to happen again. Yet when they did appear, I barely even noticed. The first, Brian W. Aldiss, part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction Series from University of Illinois Press, arrived during the period when Maureen was at home, in a hospital bed set up in the dining room. I was expecting this one to be controversial, it offers a measured take on his work, praising some and criticising others, and I anticipated that the Aldiss acolytes would condemn the fact that it did not offer unalloyed praise. As it was, the response has been more positive than I predicted, though I was struck by the fact that the two reviews by women that I have seen both pick up on what I call his “priapic masculinity”. One of those reviews, by the way, appeared in the TLS, the first time I’ve been reviewed there which was quite a thrill, though by the time that appeared Maureen was in a care home and I wasn’t really paying that much attention. The second book, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, part of the Palgrave Science Fiction and Fantasy: A New Canon series, arrived when Maureen was in the care home, though I was able to show it to her. Anecdotally it seems to be quite well received, but I’ve seen no reviews so far. And frankly I wasn’t in any sort of state where I could do anything to promote it. I was proud of the book when I wrote it, now it’s just too associated with a bad time.
And that was nearly the sum total of my writing to appear this year. The only review published was this one, written in 2021; none of the things I’ve written this year have so far appeared. There was one essay I put on this blog, “A Taxonomy of Reviewing“, which was something that had been on my mind for a long time. For a while it seemed to attract some attention, but as is the way of things it has since faded from view.
As for my reading, well, as I say, it started optimistically enough …
1: Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton, an account of the division of Berlin after the Second World War, leading up to the Berlin Airlift. I wrote about it here.
2: April in Spain by John Banville, another of his crime novels that would, until recently, have appeared under the Benjamin Black name. I wrote about it here.
3: The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee, a curious but rather charming historical novel about New York that I wrote about here.
4: On the Cusp by David Kynaston, the latest volume in his magisterial Tales of New Jerusalem sequence, though this one concentrates on just a few months in one year, 1962. It was the year I was ten, as I say here.
5: The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan. In previous iterations if this post I would highlight in bold those books that seemed to me particularly significant. It didn’t seem appropriate this year, but any other time this would certainly have been in bold, as I say here.
6: I and My True Love by Helen MacInnes, which I wrote about here.
7: Maigret by Georges Simenon, which I also wrote about here.
8: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. This is one of those big, important books whose importance is not one whit diminished by the fact that I don’t always agree with it. I wrote about it here, and also here.
9: Unquiet Landscape by Christopher Neve. I’ve been finding myself returning again and again to an interest in art, particularly 20th century British art, and this is one of the best books I’ve encountered on the subject, as I explain here.
10: Cecile is Dead by Georges Simenon.
11: The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories by Nina Allan. The second of her books I read this year, and the second that would have been shown in bold in another time. I wrote about it here, but this was where the world went wrong. Everything read after this point was intermittent, and I was able to write about none of them (except for those, later in the year, where I produced reviews).
12: The Cellars of the Majestic by Georges Simenon.
13: The Judge’s House by Georges Simenon.
14: Signed, Picpus by Georges Simenon. While Maureen was increasingly unwell at home, but before she went into hospital for the first time, I would often read to her. What I read was these four Maigret novels, from Cecile is Dead to Signed, Picpus. Now, I remember nothing about them, I could not distinguish one from the other to save my life. We enjoyed them at the time, that is all I know.
15: Witcraft by Jonathan Ree. I referenced this book in the second piece I wrote about The Dawn of Everything, and said I would write at length about the book later. That, now, is not going to happen. But anyone with an interest in the history of British philosophy should read this book, it is endlessly fascinating.
16: Home is the Hunter by Helen MacInnes. This is, so far as I am aware, the only play that Helen MacInnes wrote, and the only thing not set in the contemporary or near-contemporary world. It is, in fact, a comedy that usurps the common story told of the return of Odysseus to Ithaka, and it played with time sufficiently for me to suggest to John Clute that I write an entry on it for the SF Encyclopedia.
17: The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler. No, sorry, my mind is a blank. I like Ambler and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this when I read it, but I have no memory of the story whatsoever.
18: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. Was this the one set on Cuba? These are good books, well written, tightly plotted, it seems wrong that this has so thoroughly and so quickly fled my memory.
19: Inspector Cadaver by Georges Simenon. By now, Maureen was in hospital, and as it turned out I wouldn’t read to her again. She had already read this, so I picked it up in order to keep up with the series. Not one of the really good ones, I’m afraid.
20: American Stutter 2019-2021 by Steve Erickson. Maureen gave me this, not quite the last book she gave me but close. It is Erickson, of course I was eager to read it, and it is typically excellent, an idiosyncratic personal account of the politics at the end of the Trump era. I wish I had read it in better circumstances, I would have had so much more to say.
21: Checkmate to Murder by E.C.R. Lorac. Maureen came across this somehow, and I read it out of curiosity. Lorac (a pseudonym, it will surprise you to learn) wrote a whole string of crime novels around mid-century. A number of them have been republished by the British Library, I’m not sure I would have bothered. The writing is pedestrian and the plotting lame.
22: The China Governess by Marjory Allingham. To make up for the dull taste left by Lorac, I turned back to Allingham. This is another of her stories set in a small social circle, this time one with money. It is not among her best, I think, but it is so much more satisfying than the Lorac.
23: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. During the weeks when she was at home during the summer, Maureen got all of the Night Watch novels that we didn’t already have. She really enjoyed them, and at her insistence I tried this one. I can appreciate why people like them, but it doesn’t really work for me. But that is something I have found with practically everything by Pratchett that I’ve read. I can sit back and recognise how good they are technically, but I’ve never really been able to immerse myself in them.
24: The Club by Leo Damrosch. The Club was a prototypical gentleman’s club founded in 1764, mainly as a device to lift Samuel Johnson out of one of his depressions and which continued for several decades. It’s members included Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Joseph Banks and others. In other words, it is a remarkable cross-section of the literary and political world of the late 18th century. A fascinating subject for a book, you might think, and that is indeed what this volume purports to be. Except it isn’t. Damrosch uses the Club as an excuse for one more book about Dr Johnson and James Boswell (who wasn’t even invited to join the Club until nearly ten years after it was founded). There are rather grudging chapters that divert our attention to others – Reynolds, Garrick, Gibbon – but he quickly get back to telling us about Johnson and Boswell. Indeed most of the book hardly even mentions the Club. The style is journalistic, not always convincing, and mostly concerns the individual endeavours of the various members while telling us next to nothing about how the Club operated and any sense of collective endeavour associated with it. It is a big, well-reviewed and ultimately disappointing book.
25: While We Still Live by Helen MacInnes. Maureen had been giving me a MacInnes book every birthday and Christmas for some years, and she had completed the set, in a uniform Titan edition, just before she fell ill. This one was an early novel written during the war about Polish resistance to the initial Nazi invasion. It had been initially published as While Still We Live, a line from the Polish national anthem. I first encountered it, back in the 70s, as The Unconquerable. The latest Titan reprint has opted for a slightly distorted and clumsier version of the original title. It is the longest book she wrote, and you can tell it’s early (the immediacy of the parts of the book set just before the invasion make me wonder if it wasn’t the first thing she tried to write, a novel perhaps put aside for what would be her first published novel, Above Suspicion), it reads like an apprentice work, over-long, unsteady in its pacing, and definitely getting more dramatic as it progresses.
26: Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest. I reviewed this, and conducted a parallel interview with Chris, for Interzone. I’m not sure when it is due to appear, but I certainly haven’t seen it yet.
27: Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis. Around the time I started reading this, Maureen had been rushed back into hospital with pneumonia; by the time I finished she was being transferred to the care home where she would spend the last weeks of her life. Not ideal circumstances for reading about someone I consider a comic genius. But this is certainly an excellent biography.
28: Space for Peace by Richard Howard. Throughout those last weeks, whenever I needed to leave Maureen’s room while she was attended by the care assistants or the psychiatrist or the doctor or what have you, I would be sitting in the lounge making notes about this book, and the next one on the list, for reviews that were already over-due. This is a book about Bob Shaw and James White, considering them more from the perspective of Irish literature than British science fiction. An interesting take, if not always convincing. I reviewed it for Foundation.
29: The Rise of the Cyberzines by Mike Ashley. This was the book I was reading when she died. It is the final volume in Ashley’s five-volume history of sf magazines. I have issues with the whole series, and this volume exemplifies them all. It is valuable as a data set and terrible as a history. But I had the chance to express all that in a long review for SF Studies.
30: Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes.
31: The Hidden Target by Helen MacInnes. The last two Helen MacInnes novels that Maureen had collected for me, and basically all that I was capable of reading in the weeks immediately after her death. They are both relatively late works, so not novels I had encountered during my binge-reading of MacInnes back in the early 70s, but they are both good examples of her style.
32: The War of Nerves by Martin Sixsmith. I suppose this is where I, very tentatively, started reading for pleasure again. But it was tentative and, with the exception of a couple of review books, my taste led me instinctively to non-fiction. This is one of those areas of 20th century history that I have found myself coming back to again and again, often in very different aspects. I first got interested in the Cold War through my interest in espionage, but that led me to deception, and through that to the way culture was was shaped, sometimes deliberately, by government agencies and by those things that were commanding popular attention. Hence Louis Menand’s The Free World, which I read last year. This feels like something of a companion volume, a look at the Cold War years from a psychological perspective. It is particularly interesting in its discussions of the way both East and West consistently misread the fears and intentions of the other side. There were occasions when you sense that if one side or the other had only begun to pay attention to what was motivating the other side there wouldn’t have been a Cold War at all.
33: Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson. Let me explain: I really like Hutch’s writing, and the Fractured Europe sequence is, I believe, one of the most important text’s in contemporary science fiction. And this late addition to the sequence is, in some ways, one of the best. So it will demonstrate something of my mental state when I say that I began reading this in the middle of October (probably around the time of the funeral), and only finished it late in November. Yet in some ways I felt I was racing through it, I was so caught up in the story. I reviewed the novel for Locus.
34: The World Set Free by H.G. Wells. Another review, this one for the BSFA.
35: The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. In a sense this doesn’t belong on the list since I didn’t actually finish it. My copy of the book (an American first edition hardcover) turned out to have a signature missing, 16 pages absent from the book, which meant I was lacking the majority of the last chapter and the opening of the Epilogue. But by the time I discovered this, I had so many arguments and frustrations with the book that I couldn’t be arsed to contact the publisher for a complete edition. In a sense this is trying to do for medieval history what The Dawn of Everything was doing for ancient history: challenging accepted views and suggesting that we need to look at the so-called Dark Ages with new eyes. Now I am up for this approach, I am very sympathetic to the aim of this book, but … and it is a very, very big BUT … it is so clumsily done. They don’t spell out the analyses they are arguing against, and they counter these analyses with broad generalisations rather than well presented research. The quality of the writing is – shall we be polite – poor. And all too often I found myself unconvinced by arguments I wanted to believe. What they are arguing in this book is, I think, correct, it’s just that we need a far more thorough and systematic presentation of that argument.
36: The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture by Mark Bould. The title is almost longer than the book, which is very short, really just an extended essay. It is also the best thing I have read by Mark, and I was crying out for more, more, more. At some point during the last months of her life, Maureen read this and raved about it, and she was right. I have a feeling that ideas from this book will pervade my thinking for some time to come.
37: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz by Kevin Jackson. The last book of the year, finished in the early evening of the last day of the year, and the first of my Christmas presents to myself. We seek patterns, it’s one of the ways we try to make sense of the world, and one of the patterns we look for is a starting point. In truth, to say X began then is usually wrong, things tend to evolve over time, but there are moments when things seem to come together in a significant way. The windy October day in 1962, for instance, when the first Bond movie and the first Beatles single were released on the same day. Or, 40 years earlier, when Modernism took root. Oh Modernism wasn’t born in 1922, there are traces of it back into the previous century, and the First World War played a major part in its development, but 1922 was the year it all seemed to come together, forging a way into public consciousness and creating a template that others would follow. 1922 was the year when Ulysses by James Joyce, “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence were all published, when the BBC was founded and broadcast radio began, when Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago and became a star, when the Irish Free State was formed and the civil war began and W.B. Yeats became an Irish Senator, when Andre Breton began the movement that would become surrealism, and more and more and more. This book is a day-by-day record of that year: it is light, engaging, opinionated, sometimes wrong (the hero of Agatha Christie’s second novel was not “Hercules Poirot”), often funny, and always readable. I’m a sucker for the sorts of coincidences that turn up on every page, and boy did 1922 seem to attract coincidences, a century later we have seen nothing on a par with the intellectual and creative ferment of that year.
And that is it. 2022 is over, 2023 has now begun. And speaking personally it could not possibly be as bad as last year. So we head on into the sunrise and try to be optimistic.