End of the year, and as I do every year I am producing a write-up on all the books I’ve read during the year. Except, this wasn’t every year, this was a weird, misshapen beast of a year. Superficially, my life during lockdown wasn’t all that different from my life in any other recent year. But there were differences, things that were missed, things that became out of reach, things that were suddenly more stressful than usual, indeed more stressful than they had any right to be. On top of which we had the inestimable joy of seeing in vivid highlight just how mad and incompetent and uncaring our political masters actually are. It was a year that attacked us, a year we didn’t just have to endure but actually had to fight back against. And out of it all? Well, I spent more of the year feeling worn down, mentally exhausted, than I think I’ve ever known before. Which is not exactly good for getting lots of reading done.
I’ve spent much of the year seeing people talk about how lockdown has allowed them to get more reading than ever done. And it’s like I’m reading something in a foreign language. I simply don’t understand what they are saying. It has been a terrible year for reading. I had no patience for most of the books that came my way; far more books than usual were tossed aside unfinished. And when I did persevere I found it harder than ever to concentrate, so I read less more slowly. What worked for me was not exactly comfort reading, I didn’t turn back to old favourites, in fact I didn’t re-read much of anything during the year. But I did find that crime worked for me better than most other forms of fiction, particularly the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon which I discovered for the first time this year. And I was turning more than ever to non-fiction, perhaps because of the way the best non-fiction engages the intellect.
Anyway, this is the much-reduced list of all the books I finished during the year. As usual, I’ve put the books that I particularly recommend in bold.
1: Aldiss Unbound – Richard Mathews: The first month or so of the year was taken up with last-minute reading for my own book on Aldiss. The first three titles on this list are the three previous books on Aldiss, which seem to be trying to out-do each other in how unquestioningly they adore everything the man ever wrote. I can only hope that my own book has managed to inform the work with a more critical perspective than any of these three managed.
2: Apertures – Brian Griffin & David Wingrove.
3: Brian Aldiss – Michael R. Collings.
4: Enemies of the System – Brian Aldiss: And there were also three books by Aldiss that I had to catch up with at the last minute, two of which, at least, were indicative of just how bad some of his work could be.
5: Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky which I’ve already written about here.
6: Brothers of the Head – Brian Aldiss.
7: Super-State – Brian Aldiss.
8: We Danced All Night – Martin Pugh: I am more and more fascinated by British social history, particularly of the twentieth century, and this is one of the best I have encountered. It is an extraordinary account of that twenty-year period between the two world wars, and, unusually for histories of that period, it gives an unusual emphasis to the lives of women in that time.
9: Memories of the Future – Siri Hustvedt which I wrote about here along with the identically titled collection by Krzhizhanovsky.
10: Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel – Caroline Edwards which I reviewed (very favourably) for Science Fiction Studies.
11: Here We Are – Graham Swift which I wrote about here.
12: Tombland – C.J. Sansom: The last, or at least last-to-date, of Sansom’s novels about the Tudor lawyer and investigator, Matthew Shardlake, and following the pattern of the earlier volumes, it is also the longest of the books. By now, Henry VIII is dead and Shardlake is working for the Princess Elizabeth, a perilous occupation given how out-of-favour Elizabeth is at the court. But a bizarre murder involving a distant Boleyn relative sends Shardlake to Norwich just in time to get caught up in Kett’s Rebellion. As always with Sansom the pleasure is in the detailed recreation of historical events, and the atmospheric presentation of the social reality of daily life at that time.
13: Double Cross – Ben MacIntyre: There is something terribly British about the fact that the double cross operation they ran with turned German spies during World War II was under the control of a group called the Twenty Committee (Roman numerals: XX); and there is something terribly German about the fact that, though they must learned the name of that committee, the German spymasters never twigged to what it signified. Though I do find myself wondering whether the Abwehr (mostly staffed by aristocrats who were not exactly pro-Nazi) was knowingly turning a blind eye to what was going on. If there wasn’t some level of complicity, they were woefully incompetent. Every single German spy sent to Britain during the war was captured, and a number were turned; though the double cross network was mostly made up of people who approached the British independently. There are questions about exactly how much influence the double cross spies had on the course of the war, but it is pretty clear that they fed the German High Command with what they wanted to hear, so they were simply confirming expectations when they revealed that there were twice as many troops in Britain as were in truth present, and when they said that the Normandy landings were just a feint before the real invasion at Pas de Calais. Hitler in particular was so convinced of this last that he held troops in place at Calais for almost twenty days after the Allies had come ashore at Normandy.
14: The Light of Day – Eric Ambler: This was the novel that inspired the film Topkapi, though in truth the novel is a richer and more complex work, and the unreliable narrator of the novel is a far funnier and more nuanced character than Peter Ustinov who plays him in the film.
15: The Farthest Shore – Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve been reading the Earthsea Trilogy aloud to Maureen off and on for the last few years, mostly limited to a chapter or two as entertainment on long car journeys. This is easily my least favourite of the three.
16: The Late Monsieur Gallet – Georges Simenon: Many years ago, I tried reading some of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels and couldn’t get on with them. I think Maureen had a similar experience. But we have both enjoyed radio and television dramatizations of the Maigret stories (I have fond memories of Rupert Davies in the 1960s, and we have both enjoyed the Rowan Atkinson incarnation), and sometime late last year or early this year Maureen decided she would give the Maigret novels a go. She enjoyed them a lot, but she also thought they would work well being read aloud. So, having finished the Le Guin, we picked up this one. It remains, a dozen or so Maigret novels later, my favourite of them, but there isn’t a bad one in the bunch, and they are wonderful to read aloud. I love the fact that they are all very carefully structured, all 145-155 pages long, all consist of 11 chapters, the last of which is always about half the length of any other. And yet, within those constraints, and despite the speed with which they were written (about 10 in 1932 alone), they never feel mechanical. The nature of the crime, Maigret’s relationship to the crime, the circumstances, the setting, the social environment within which it all occurs, always vary from novel to novel.
17: Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark: I love Spark’s work, but this is a late and decidedly minor work. It consists of a novella and a novelette (the novella is late, the novelette, I think, quite early). The novella concerns a psychiatrist in Paris, two of whose patients both claim to be Lord Lucan (the minor aristocrat and gambler who murdered his children’s nanny, presumably mistaking her for his wife, then fled the country never to be seen again). Since the psychiatrist is also living under a false name, there is some interesting stuff about identity going on here, but it never quite seems to hit the heights the way you’d expect of Spark.
18: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien – Georges Simenon.
19: The Carter of La Providence – Georges Simenon.
20: The Pale Criminal – Philip Kerr: The second of the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, this time investigating murders that bring him up against the anti-Jewish policies and beliefs of the Nazi regime.
21: H.G. Wells: A Literary Life – Adam Roberts which I reviewed for Foundation.
22: The Yellow Dog – Georges Simenon.
23: A German Requiem – Philip Kerr: I’m not exactly sure why, but the first three of the novels Kerr wrote about his German detective are known as the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, as is they are somehow separate from all the other Bernie Gunther novels that Kerr has written, despite the fact that the fourth volume, The One from the Other, is a direct sequel to this novel, which is the third part of the trilogy. In fact, there is more connection between A German Requiem and its sequel than there is with the two novels that precede it. In those two Gunther is a Berlin detective in Nazi Germany; in A German Requiem the war is over and Gunther finds himself in Vienna, though the case he is investigating has its inevitable links to the Nazi regime.
24: Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century – Sarah Cole: also reviewed for Foundation. This is one of the best books on Wells I have read for a long time, examining his sometimes fraught relationship with the modernist writers of his time, and suggesting that his work was more modernist, and more worthy of examination than we tend to assume.
25: Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell: As we have come to expect of Mitchell, there are two bits of story going on here. One is the long story that ties this novel to everything else he has written: the two schools of immortality at war in the background. In some of his novels (The Bone Clocks, Slade House) this over-arching fantasy is the main focus of the work, but here I find it far and away the least interesting part of what is going on. The other story is about the rise and fall of a rock group in the late-1960s, and this I found absolutely entrancing. It may be because this is my musical era, many of the performers who have walk-on parts in the novel were among my favourite artists at the time. The novel is littered with quotations from the songs of the period, some overt, many not, and they filled my head with exactly the music of the group Utopia Avenue. I recognized the group even if it never actually existed: bits of early Fairport perhaps and Pentangle, mixed with The Animals, maybe, and a soupcon of The Kinks? Folk and rock just at the time they were learning to live together. To that degree, therefore, I find this an excellent historical novel.
26: Utopia: The History of an Idea – Gregory Claeys: And another, different, utopia. Except that this book is a mess, a confusion of ideas and there are major parts of the book where the only reason I understood what was going on was because I already knew about it before I picked up this book.
27: Night at the Crossroads – Georges Simenon.
28: The Last Astronaut – David Wellington: I read this because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist, and because it is the one book on that list that I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere else (after I read it I came across Nina Allan’s evisceration of the book, which says much of what I say here). I wondered if this was the book that had slipped through the net, but that deserved better. All I can say is: what the fuck were the Clarke jurors thinking? It’s not a bad book, but it’s a book that positions sf firmly back in the 1960s. To be specific, it is Rendezvous With Rama dressed up for a new audience. For me, the point of science fiction is to confront the new, to make us see something afresh. An award should recognise a work that pushes the envelope, that takes sf in a new direction. That new direction is not backwards. The Last Astronaut is almost shameless in the way it steals from Rendezvous With Rama. An object enters the solar system, and starts to slow down. NASA has been wound down over the decades, so their only option for exploring the alien object is a mothballed spaceship and a disgraced ex-astronaut. When the astronaut and her crew enter the object, you’ve got all the basics of Rama repeated: a frozen landscape that slowly comes to life, objects that are mysterious and unlike anything we know on earth. There aren’t the tripods, but there is the icefield that melts to become the equatorial ocean. Wellington takes the easy option of making all this threatening rather than just mysterious. Characterisation is perfunctory: the central figures are each defined by just one thing, and show no more growth or complexity than that. There are convenient devices available just when they are needed. There’s something mechanical about the whole enterprise (both within the story and in the writing of it).
There are many worse books about, true, but if this is the sort of book that should be considered for an sf award, then science fiction has gone into reverse.
29: Pietr the Latvian – Georges Simenon.
30: The Code Book – Simon Singh: My interest in deception and espionage in World War II has inevitably come around to the issue of codes and cyphers and cryptanalysis. The Code Book has been on our shelves for years, so it seemed like a good idea to pick it up. It covers the whole history of codes from Biblical times to Enigma and beyond, so it is not especially deep on any part of that history, but it does seem like a good general introduction to the subject.
31: The Grand Banks Cafe – Georges Simenon.
32: A Crime in Holland – Georges Simenon.
33: The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz: Well, at least I managed to pursue this to the end, unlike so many of the other highly-praised novels of the year that were discarded almost before I’d begun. I really wanted to like this novel more than I actually did. It started off well, and all the way through there are some things I really liked. But increasingly I found myself struggling to accept what I was being told. I had real difficulty with the gang of teenage serial killers. I just didn’t believe it. There were places where I felt Newitz wasn’t sure in her own mind what she was writing about. We are told repeatedly that the Great Man theory of history doesn’t work: if you kill Hitler, someone else would fill the same niche. Yet everything about Comstock is Great Man theory. And I’m not sure Newitz really noticed how often she was contradicting herself. I loved the time machine, but again I don’t think Newitz had really thought it through. Of course, she gets away with a lot by giving us no details, no explanations, no origin story, but even so I couldn’t make the whole thing hold together in my mind. And then there was the woman from the future. I recall that line, was it from Chandler, that if you are stuck on your plot have someone burst in with a gun. Well Morehshin was that someone with a gun. As far as I can see, her main role, indeed almost her exclusive role, was to let Newitz break all of the rules she had so far established about using the time machine. To my mind this is not playing with the net up. As I say there is a lot about the novel I like. I particularly like Beth and her relationship with her father. And I rather like how Newitz teases us over whether Tess is Beth or Lizzy. But all the way through I couldn’t help feeling that the whole just didn’t hold together.
34: Remains of Elmet – Ted Hughes & Fay Godwin: Another book that has been on our shelves forever and that I never quite got around to reading before. Well, I say reading, but it was Fay Godwin’s startling black and white photographs that caught my attention. Ted Hughes’s poems seemed to me rather flat by comparison, often seeming laboured and repetitious.
35: A Gray Playbook – Alasdair Gray: A beautiful volume, gloriously illustrated by the author. Gray was a moderately successful playwright before he became a novelist, and this gathers together most of his plays ranging from a one-act version of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus written for and performed by his school classmates when he was about 10, to an incomplete modern adaptation of Goethe’s Faust from 2008. Among the various theatre, radio and television plays between these end points there are the plays that would later be recast as the novels The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Mavis Belfrage, and McGrotty and Ludmilla, along with a host of others I hadn’t encountered in any form before. But for me the two stand-out elements of the book are the script for a putative film version of Poor Things, and an extract from the storyboard for Lanark with which he hoped to persuade someone to make a film of that novel. How much I would give to have seen both those films.
36: The Salzburg Connection – Helen MacInnes: The first of two Helen MacInnes novels I read this year. They are chunky books, well over 300 pages of fairly dense text, and there’s a lot going on in them, yet I get through them at a phenomenal rate. It rarely takes more than a day to read the book from start to finish, I find them so compelling.
37: The One from the Other – Philip Kerr: The first of his Bernie Gunther novels not to be part of the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, even though this follows directly on from the events of A German Requiem, with Gunther getting involved with the ring smuggling Nazis out of Europe to South America.
38: Big Sky – Kate Atkinson: A belated addition to her sequence of Jackson Brodie crime novels. Well, there’s usually a crime, and Brodie sort of investigates though often half-heartedly, and most of the story is told through the eyes of a host of sometimes oddball characters who never know more than a fraction of what is going on. It’s an approach that makes these novels fascinating, though I have to be in the right mood to get the most out of them. I was in the right mood for this.
39: A Kind of Anger – Eric Ambler: It is fascinating to watch Ambler laying down the groundwork that later spy writers would follow. This is a perfect example: a search for someone who doesn’t want to be found, an uneasy alliance between people who aren’t sure they can trust each other, and competing enemy forces that must be outwitted if our central characters are to survive. Great stuff.
40: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M. John Harrison: Okay, I’ve said so for both Strange Horizons and Locus, this is undoubtedly the book of the year. It is simply a distillation of everything that is brilliant about Harrison’s writing, which I’ve written about here (and, tangentially, here).
41: One Two Three Four – Craig Brown: I find it strange that people are still finding different ways to write about the brief decade-long existence of The Beatles, but when the result is as good as this, I can’t complain.
42: The Same River Twice – Ted Mooney which I wrote about here.
43: A Man’s Head – Georges Simenon.
44: Dead Doubles – Trevor Barnes, which I wrote about here.
45: The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow: And yet again a book that has been sitting neglected on our shelves for too long. This, to me, is both the origin of and the model for the trend for group biographies that we’ve seen since the beginning of this century. It is the story of the group of industrialists and savants from the Midlands that are the very embodiment of the blossoming of scientific knowledge during the latter part of the 18th century. It is a fascinating story and extraordinarily well told.
46: Lost Girls – D.J. Taylor, which I wrote about here.
47: The Evidence – Christopher Priest: To be honest, as I was reading it, this felt like one of his second-rank novels. But I was asked to review it for Foundation, and as I was writing that review I found I was identifying all sorts of connections and resonances that only became clear in retrospect.
48: Bletchley Park and D-Day – David Kenyon: How do you make the story of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park sound uninteresting? By writing it like one of those corporate histories that big companies sometimes insist on putting out. Also, Kenyon seems to have an axe to grind. For him, Enigma has played too big a part in the public perception of Bletchley, so we are constantly being told that they didn’t decipher that much, or the messages they discovered were too late, or they didn’t have that much effect (other things I’ve read suggest this is at best not the whole truth). Meanwhile the other parts of the codebreaking operation are praised unstintingly, as if they are not all part of the same operation. It is, I suspect, significant that Alan Turing hardly appears in the index.
49: The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin – Georges Simenon.
50: The Two-Penny Bar – Georges Simenon.
51: A Diary in the Age of Water – Nina Munteanu: I reviewed this for the BSFA. It seems to me to be a rather clumsily constructed series of mini-lectures about water and the environment presented as being a polemic and the whole thing then disguised as a novel, and every part of that tripartite structure seems to undermine the other two parts.
52: The Shadow Puppet – Georges Simenon.
53: This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, which I wrote about here.
54: Reading Backwards – John Crowley: John Crowley is damned near as fine an essayist and reviewer as he is a novelist, as this selection of pieces from 2005-2018 amply demonstrates. Though reading through did seem to illustrate something I’ve noticed before in American critical writing: while British critics seem to strive to keep themselves out of their reviews, Americans seem to consider reviewing as a branch of autobiography. Thus, here, we learn an awful lot about Crowley’s upbringing, the places he lived, the family’s catholicism, his interest in theatre design and so on. It’s fascinating stuff that is often very revealing about his fiction, particularly the second volume in the Aegypt sequence, Love And Sleep.
55: The Saint-Fiacre Affair – Georges Simenon: I’ve noticed, even in the handful of Maigret novels I’ve now read, how much Simenon likes to ring the changes. In The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, for instance, Maigret hardly appears for much of the novel. It is like Simenon is constantly looking to find new ways to tell a crime story, while most crime novelists of the inter-war years (Christie, Sayers) told their stories in much the same way, but changed the surrounding detail. That Simenon was consciously rejecting the style of Christie and her kind is demonstrated by this novel, which climaxes with a parodic version of the invariable denouement scene where Poirot gathers all the suspects together. It is a very deliberate two fingers to the then most common style of crime fiction.
56: The Silence – Don DeLillo: It is interesting how much, and how overtly, DeLillo is turning towards science fiction. His last novel, Zero K, concerned cryogenics, this new novella is a version of a disaster story that is very precisely set in the near-future, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2022. While a couple and their younger friend settle down to watch the game, another couple who are expecting to join them are currently on a flight arriving from Paris. Then all the electrics go out: the television is blank, the cell phones are silent, the airplane controls are disabled. We’ve seen this notion of the modern world going away before, and we’ll see it again, but it seems a scenario ideally suited to DeLillo. This is not a catastrophe of rioting and bloodshed and people reverting to savagery, that’s not how DeLillo characters react to anything; rather this is a catastrophe of isolation and silence. Conversations stop being responses, one person to another, and become overlapping monologues with no interconnection. One character loses touch with reality as he begins to imagine the game he is not seeing on the screen. For DeLillo, when the modern world goes away it takes away our connections to other people.
57: Pray for a Brave Heart – Helen MacInnes: In The Salzburg Connection an American amateur finds himself caught up in a plot involving Nazis and Russians centred on a picturesque Alpine village just outside Salzburg; in Pray for a Brave Heart an American amateur finds himself caught up in a plot involving Nazis and Russians centred on a picturesque Alpine village just outside Bern. They are not the same stories, but there is a Helen MacInnes pattern that is starkly illustrated by reading these two novels in close proximity. Doesn’t stop me enjoying them, though.
58: Snow – John Banville: I don’t understand why this novel has not been published under Banville’s Benjamin Black persona, it is so very clearly a Benjamin Black novel, even to numerous references to Quirke and Hackett from the early Black novels. And the setting is is the same as in the Quirke novels: Ireland in the 1950s, with the focus on the baleful political and social influence of the all-powerful Catholic church. In this instance, as a corner of South East Ireland lies under a thick blanket of snow in the last few days before Christmas, a priest is stabbed to death and then castrated. The policeman sent down from Dublin is a protestant so the way the Catholic hierarchy tries to cover up the details of the case and interfere with the investigation are particularly galling. It is a familiar scenario from Banville/Black, I worked out the who and the why of the murder quite early on, but it is very well done.
59: X Y & Z – Dermot Turing: Turing, the nephew of Alan Turing, set out to write the story of how Enigma was broken, but he quickly became focussed on the story of the Polish codebreakers who first cracked the German codes. The Enigma machine was patented towards the end of the First World War and initially sold as a commercial device, but the German military started to take it up at the end of the 1920s. For Poland, effectively divided between German and Russian rule by the Versailles treaty, this was a problem, and the Polish independent movement started to gather together a crack team of mathematicians and codebreakers in order to get access to German secrets. And they succeeded; Polish codebreakers were regularly reading German Enigma messages at least ten years before Alan Turing started working on the problem. The Poles had even invented a device they called a “Bombe” which helped work out the setting for the three rotors in the Enigma machine. The Polish Bombe was the basis for the machine of the same name that Turing would later develop. Meanwhile, a senior and rather dubious character in French intelligence, Gustave Bertrand, had a German double agent who was regularly selling them top flight information, including codebooks and Enigma settings. But the French had no facilities for codebreaking, so they got together with the Poles to swap information. Meanwhile, still unaware that Enigma had been cracked, the German military started to improve security, adding additional rotors to the machine, and changing settings on a daily basis. This made the Polish Bombe ineffective, so the arrangement with France was expanded to include Britain for extra facilities. This was the X (France), Y (Britain) & Z (Poland) intelligence alliance that was established bare months before Germany invaded Poland. The Polish codebreakers escaped at the last moment, but rather than getting them to Britain where their work would have given the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park an astonishing head start, Bertrand set them up in Vichy France where their facilities were fewer and the risks were greater. They still did some significant work there, until Germany took over Vichy and they had to flee again. Some got away, many didn’t. Those who evaded capture by the Abwehr made it to Britain but their position was now ambiguous and they were set up in a separate establishment away from Bletchley Park. Typically, once the war was over Britain was unwelcoming, and the contribution of the Polish codebreakers to the war effort was almost completely overlooked until recently. This is a fascinating book, and a wonderful corrective to Kenyon’s sour view.
And that’s it, not quite 60 books in one year. Years ago, when I was fresh out of university and first started keeping a note of the books I finished each year, I was averaging well over 100 every year. When I revived the practice a few years ago through this blog, I usually managed to read somewhere around 70 books each year. 59 is the lowest annual total I can ever remember.
Of course there were distractions. For the first half of the year I was writing the book on Aldiss, which was not, I confess, a very easy job. And later in the year there were proof corrections and other bits and pieces to do with The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, which came out in November (did I mention I have a new book?). For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, I’ve written about it here and here. And of course there were reviews for Foundation and Science Fiction Studies and the BSFA, though nowhere near as many as in some other years. But these writing assignments wouldn’t really have taken any more time away from reading than similar assignments have done in other years. No, it was a year in which events made it hard to give myself over to reading.
Of course the year is ending now, within a few hours as I write this 2020 will be over and done with. There are vaccines for the coronavirus, Trump has been voted out, a Brexit deal has been done at the last minute (a ridiculously bad deal, but better than no deal, I suppose); so 2021 has to be better. Right? Well, I’ll withhold judgement on that. Let’s say I’m not feeling overly optimistic. In Britain the government has shown an unprecedented ability to screw up everything it touches, so let’s just say that I’m not totally convinced that the various stresses and horrors of the pandemic or of Brexit are actually safely behind us. I suppose all we can do is hope and wait and see.
Good luck out there!