My top ten “new” reads of 2017

This is probably the year I’ve added to this blog the least since I started it — correction: this being my first post of the year, this is definitely the least active The Cartesian Theatre has ever been. I had to go check, but I started in 2008, and only in 2011 did I come close with a measly two posts. In 2017, my time has been consumed almost entirely by real-world work, along with one unreal-world collaborative writing project (which has been a lot of fun, and hopefully will continue to be so). However, there is always time for reading! Here’s what I reading!! Reading!!!
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Ash: A Secret History
, Mary Gentle (2000)

The first of three hefty tomes I undertook this year, Ash is quite the blockbuster, an alternate-history adventure framed by the communications of the excited researcher who discovers a medieval era which has seemingly been wholly overlooked — perhaps because in fact it didn’t happen at all… or did it? O_o There are concept similarities to The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza, published same year, I think (though I read that a decade ago (and Ash is on a whole other scale)). I went on to read the sequel,  Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, but sadly found that rather less impressive, if similarly long. And speaking of which

 

Jerusalem, Alan Moore (2016)

Prepare for contentiousness: my “appreciation” for Alan Moore’s long-foretold, decade-in-the-writing, not-so-much-a-door-stopper-as-a-whole-bloody-door of a million-word novel masks a deep division. At its best, it was an amazing, engrossing read; at its worst, it was a colossal drag, both deliberately and needlessly so, in my opinion. For every fifty-page chapter of dazzling prose there was another that I wish I’d not felt obligated to force myself through. In wine-tasting, there are specialist blends which (to the uneducated palate) simply taste like shite; Jerusalem is certainly a rich, atypical fantasy, but a blunt sampler’s guide would be a kindness.

 

The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell (2013)

Contrast the bruisingly, brutally long with the short and sweet: The Disaster Artist, a brilliantly-titled biographical tell-all exposé of Tommy Wiseau’s near-unwatchable crockbuster, The Room (which I “reviewed” here). It’s actually a lovely read, much kinder to its one-step-removed subject than I expected it to be. It’s since become the basis for a movie of the same name, which I’m not sure I’m interested in seeing. For better or worse, The Room stands up for itself as a film, and no amount of homage or parody will ever match it; The Disaster Artist complements its source without duplicating it, and that’s enough.

 

Template, Matthew Hughes (2010)

I’ve dipped into a fair bit of Hughes’s stuff since stumbling across The Other in 2014, generally finding his fiction to be ripe and entertaining (and the promised sequel to that is something I’m waiting for eagerly). Another short sf novel, Template was really bloody good — a fast, punchy (or maybe “stabby” would be better) conspiracy adventure Innn Spaaace. I also read 9 Tales of Raffalon, a collection of classic-style fantasy picaresques, and Paroxysm, an 80s-style pulp thriller of the small-town-deliberate-experimental-bioweapon-outbreak sort (you know the kind of thing I mean).

 

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1), Lee Child (1997)

I have a shameful memory, of once cheerfully acknowledging that, despite having no direct experience to base my rejection on, I had no plans to read a Jack Reacher novel. The fever-eyed fangirl of the same, whom I had instantly filled with weary but good-natured contempt, informed me that I shouldn’t let Tom Cruise’s completely dissimilar physique from tainting the source before I gave them a chance, but it wasn’t even that: I had simply acquired the unfounded notion that they were, in essence, crap (something I have since learned is far from a unique opinion). I apologise to both she and Lee, unreservedly.

 

The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas (1844)

A friend of mine has, and I quote, “a leather-bound copy of The Three Musketeers re-purposed as a handbag” — not to mention an extensive collection of Dumas first editions — so I should probably have given the discarded pages of her favourite accessory a try before now. I loved it: very funny, often exciting, and quilled in a style so easy to read that I needed to keep reminding myself that it was written a hundred-and-seventy-odd years ago. Also made me want to watch Dogtanion and the Three Muskehounds all over again, he said, utterly destroying any credibility acquired by delving into classic literature.

 

Gillespie and I, Jane Harris (2011)

My first experience of reading Jane Harris was worth the wait; we’ve been very occasional online acquaintances for several years, and actually met in 2015 amidst fellow book lovers during an annual get-together (next year at Stonehenge!). Gillespie and I is her second novel, the fictional memoir of a sort-of domestic drama in late-19th Century Glasgow at the periphery of the fine art crowd. It’s an exercise in tease and foreshadowing, deceptively light at first glance, unexpectedly sombre come the end. Her first book, The Observations, and this year’s Sugar Money are now on my TBR list.

 

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (2010)

My third Bacigalupi novel (I also liked his collection Pump Six and Other Stories a lot). Here he presents a post-eco-collapse world the way William Gibson’s breakthrough novels did a hyper-connected techno-future: with a kind of second-nature ease that feels completely plausible, if not inevitable. His central sf concept, of an economic/industrial ecosystem based on “calorie companies”, is brilliant; I may well not be originating a term if I use genepunk to describe it overall. The book is an unfolding origami of complex situation and character, all of it ready to rip apart in a flurry of massive violence. Great.

 

Sympathy for the Devil (Breen & Tozer #4), William Shaw (2017)

Also back in 2014, I sang the praises of the second Breen & Tozer novel, A House of Knives – it was my favourite read of the year, whether I said so or not. I evidently forget to mention the third instalment, which was almost as good, but this year I read two more William Shaw novels: The Birdwatcher, a contemporary standalone crime “thriller” (if Shaw’s typically down-beat tone allows the word), and then Sympathy for the Devil, which resumes his taught, unflinching examination of the flaws of the late 1960s, and of the less brightly-coloured society that hung over it. Great British crime writing. And speaking of The Empire

 

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian (1969)

I’ve saved what is (no, are) unquestionably the best for last. 2017 is the year in which, far too long after discovering an on-line ally considered the Aubrey & Maturin novels to be the best he’d ever read, I finally decided to find out what the big deal was for myself. I loved the movie, of course, but on reading Master and Commander I discovered an entirely new level of the wonderful, one that was nothing less than equalled by what followed in Post Captain (1972), H.M.S. Surprise (1973), The Mauritius Command (1977), Desolation Island (1977 – what a year!) and The Fortune of War (1978). The thought that I have fifteen more of these novels waiting in my future gives me nothing but massive pleasure.


NOT THE END!

I want to salute a couple of near-misses before I go, as two novellas I read right at the end of December deserve a mention: Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale (I do love a good western, and this was one) and Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts (third instalment of her Cookie Cutter Superhero YA universe, and it was every bit as good as its predecessors).

At the close of my last few end-of-year round-ups, I also took the liberty of shilling for whatever anthology project I’d been involved with most recently. This time I can’t, as for various reasons the latest SFFWorld.com anthology is still in progress — though I can confirm from my insider’s point of view that it’s looking great! That doesn’t mean I can’t shill anything, of course…

The other reason I started on the Aubrey & Maturin series was as a bit of lazy writer’s research — since that collaborative project mentioned at the top of this post just happens to be a historical naval fantasy (which is set in a slightly earlier period, but close enough… like I said, I’m lazy).

That project is called ARCHIPELAGO, and since launching last May it continues to tack proudly against the headwind of global indifference, helmed by the piratical democratic triumvirate that is myself, Charlotte Ashley and Kurt Hunt (two spec-fic authors with far more impressive track records than my poor self!). It weaves together three disparate stories set in the early 17th Century, when ships were tall and across the ocean a new world awaited discovery — in our case, a literally new world…

So, if you’ve some free time in 2018 why not pop over and read the first few free chapters to see if you like it! The novel will be out by the next time I summarise my annual reading.

And on that note

Happy New Year!

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