To my surprise, in 2016 I made my goal of 52 books read (if you include the graphic novels). I’m surprised that I read fewer nonfiction books than I thought. I didn’t read much poetry, which is a shame.
The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West – Lesley Poling-Kempes
An excellent book, well-organized and researched (mainly through oral histories), well-contextualized within Western and women’s studies.
Empire of Fortune – Francis Jennings
A very long book about the French and Indian War. A formidable undertaking, exhaustive, comprehensive, and thoroughly depressing. This is a very different view of the French and Indian War from a slightly bitter enfant terrible of American colonial history; with the exception of a few Quakers like Roger Pemberton, no one comes out of this excoriating history unscathed, from Wolfe to Bradstreet, Johnson to Washington, Montcalm to Bouquet, Penn to Franklin. Jennings’ main interest is to remind us of ugly truths, and there’s very little argument that can be made toward a more romanticized Fenimore Cooper vision alongside Jennings’ facts. The book cut a large swathe out of my life; I began it in an eco-hotel in York in June 2015 and finished it in my house in London in 2016, having used its stories more to inform Four Kings than The Spy, which was the original intention.
Battleborn – Claire Vaye Watkins
Set mainly in Nevada and mainly in the present, Watkins’ short stories were nothing if not refreshing. I certainly enjoyed “Ghosts, Cowboys,” “The Last Thing We Need,” and “Graceland” more than anything of Annie Proulx’s I ever read. The first story in particular was spectacular and exciting, with a really distinct voice. Despite revelling/wallowing in the present day desert, Watkins is surprisingly adept at writing historical fiction (the kind loosely rooted in historical authenticity).
1775: A Good Year for a Revolution – Kevin Phillips
Finally, I got through this: like the Jennings book, a massive undertaking and occasionally irretrievably dull. It was extremely thorough and comprehensive, and I for one am willing to believe 1774-5 were much more happenin’ years than 1776 (though the fact I have read 100 books on the American Revolution before this one, including T.H. Breen’s much more mind-blowing one on the Association, makes it a bit like preaching to the choir). It might be interesting for the Tea Party and NRA politicians to read it, mainly for their own benefit as the book is not calculated to appeal to a radical or Marxist reading as Breen’s was. For me personally, the most enlightening aspect was about the localist, religious, and economic factors influence different ethnic groups to choose sides. I wanted a book that would take me into the mindset of someone in 1775; I more or less got it, though with a huge amount of scene-setting.
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
My yearly dose of Dickens. I found the beginning really quite episodic—though considering how autobiographical it seems to be this, this is less surprising. While I wouldn’t characterize Dickens’ indictment of religious hypocrites in the same cutting style as Wilkie Collins’ in The Moonstone, nevertheless one feels sorry for Copperfield while recognizing that the Murdstones have prostituted Scripture to get their own way. Copperfield’s—and Dickens’—rescue is in books. “No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these henceforth every-day associates with those of my happier childhood—not to say with Steerforth, Traddles, and the rest of those boys; and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my bosom. The deep remembrance of the sense I had, of being utterly without hope now; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that day by day what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, would pass away from me, little by little, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written” (166).
This is a novel about profitable marriages—Barkis and Peggotty, Traddles and Sophy (Sophy can do man’s work to support her family), Dr Strong and Annie.
There are some superb Dickensian women—some of his strongest even though most of them were wicked (and if Dickens’ taste in women ran to Dora and Agnes, I am ashamed of him). Although David’s mother’s remarriage introduces a wealth of pain into his life and eventually into hers, it’s hard to be completely unsympathetic to her. After the death of David’s father, she is lonely and socially handicapped. One of the best characters is certainly David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who, among other things, cares for a mentally ill relative, Mr Dick. “ ‘So I stepped in,’ said my aunt, ‘and made him an offer. I said, Your brother’s sane—a great deal more sane than you are, or ever will be, it is to be hoped. Let him have his little income, and come and live with me. I am not afraid of him, I am not proud, I am ready to take care of him, and shall not ill-treat him as some people (besides the asylum folks) have done . . . He is the most friendly and amenable creature in existence” (214). Seeing Miss Trotwood get the best of Miss Murdstone is a very satisfying experience. Betsey, like David’s mother, however, has her tragic side. “Betsey Trotwood don’t look a likely subject for the tender passion, but the time was, Trot, when she believed in that man most entirely. When she loved him, Trot, right well. When there was no proof of attachment and affection that she would not have given him. He repaid her by breaking her fortune, and nearly breaking her heart. So she put all that sort of sentiment, once and forever in a grave, and filled it up, and flattened it down” (694). The book also seems to be an argument for extended families (ie Copperfield, his aunt, Mr Dick, and Peggotty living together). The Micawbers left me quite cold. The Murdstones are highly flavored with Jane Eyre, and I kept waiting for some resolution to their story. Curiously, there was none, almost as if Dickens forgot about them.
Poor Mrs Gummidge is a clear sufferer of undiagnosed depression (though for her there is a happy ending, appropriately through rising to the occasion of hard work!). Rosa Dartle and Mrs Steerforth are passionate creatures, wicked in Dickens’ terms but far more interesting than David’s soppy wives. “I would trample on them all. I would have his house pulled down. I would have her branded on the face, drest in rags, and cast out in the streets to starve. If I had the power to sit in judgement on her, I would see it done. See it done? I would do it! I detest her. If I ever could reproach her with her infamous condition, I would go anywhere to do so. If I could hunt her to her grave, I would. If there was any word of comfort that would be a solace to her in her dying hour, and only I possessed it, I wouldn’t part with her for Life itself” (478).
Another interesting character is Mr Mell, the penniless teacher at Mr Creakle’s school, Steerforth’s first victim as it were; I was genuinely disappointed when he didn’t feature more in the narrative. Naturally, though, I found Uriah Heep fascinating. “A tender young cork, however, would have had no more chance against a pair of corkscrews, or a tender young tooth against a pair of dentists, or a little shuttlecock against two battledores, than I had against Uriah and Mrs Heep” (265). Uriah is unctuous and loathsome but strangely fascinating and even sympathetic. On one hand, his passion for Agnes is disgusting but on the other, rather pathetic. “ ‘Before we leave the subject, you ought to understand,’ said I, breaking a pretty long silence, ‘that I believe Agnes Wickfield to be as far above you, and as far removed from all your aspirations, as that moon herself!’
“ ‘Peaceful! Ain’t she!’ said Uriah. ‘Very! Now confess, Master Copperfield, that you haven’t liked me quite as I have liked you. All along you’ve thought me too umble now, I shouldn’t wonder?’” (580). While the Heeps get their comeuppance, Uriah remains a threat that might yet come back to haunt David. “Copperfield, I have always hated you. You’ve always been an upstart, and you’ve always been against me” (764).
The ending was mainly sentimental drivel. Once the plot got going, however, The satire generally had reached a more arch, cool stage such as you find in Little Dorrit and Bleak House, but a real charity toward treating “the lower classes” like real people instead of objects, babies, or animals, was the most developed I’ve read since perhaps The Chimes.
Star Wars: Death Troopers – Joe Schreiber
I wanted to read this because I was curious about the lives of Imperial “employees,” and I did gain insight there! I was expecting a prison riot but not a frightening, gory, visceral cinematic experience. I think perhaps the book should have come with a warning for its graphic depiction of disturbing imagery. Nevertheless, I found it a very exciting story with some good surprises.
The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
Our first book club selection for 2016. A peculiar book, mainly about Australia; boy, could the guy write creative nonfiction—anecdote, memoir, both detached and intimate, saying a lot without being polemic—at least until he dips into his “notebooks” which are quite fatiguing generally (though the section on Dinofelis was quite interesting). If his book had a thesis—memoirs seldom do, but this is not straight memoir or travel writing—it’s that wandering is the natural state of being and that “civilization” is unnatural and potentially soul-destroying.
What Is the Point of Being a Christian? – Timothy Radcliffe
An interesting and thought-provoking book from a very widely-read Dominican with a sense of humor and a liberal legacy.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
I fell victim to the false advertising of this book, which plastered accolades on its cover lauding its hysterical humor and the fact it was a finalist for the Booker Prize. I found it neither funny nor particularly satisfying. It was well-written but meaningless, which perhaps what the author was trying to achieve (his social satire is of the Ed Hime type, almost too deadpan for me to grasp). The cover accurately showed that the book was about a dentist, but cleverly the marketing execs concealed the fact it is mostly about religious doubt, so for awhile it was quite good to read it in tandem with the Radcliffe book.
Dark Horizon – Jenny T. Colgan
You have to read The Terrible Zodin 19 for my review.
Blood Will Out – Walter Kirn
I’m not a huge fan of the “true crime” genre, but I think this self-examining nonfiction work had enough to say about fiction and the writer’s occupation to make it quite interesting independent of its depiction of a sensational trial. Kirn is fascinated until the end with his subject, inveterate liar and manipulator “Clark Rockefeller” (and convicted killer), even though by the end Kirn knows better. I think the book is very well-structured and approachable, which helps when it presents fanciful events and bizarre/mundane set pieces. The fact that Rope plays a large part made it eerily appropriate to read given I had heard the radio play days before.
Uncanny Stories – May Sinclair
I really enjoyed these stories, though few could really be termed “ghost stories” (one I had read before in a previous collection, “The Token,” was very nonconventional, and “The Intercessor” was a very interesting homage to Wuthering Heights and “The Open Door”). I even enjoyed her more philosophical stuff and found it quite surprisingly gripping. This collection (Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural) is well worth reading; in fact, I went on to read two more titles from it. Uncanny Stories had a very potent effect on me; I went on to research May Sinclair extensively and write about her for the 365 Women a Year project.
Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel
I’ve been wanting to read this novel since 12th grade, so I chose it for the book club. This was a fast, entertaining, and enjoyable read with more than a hint of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s magical realism. It surprised me in a great many places, especially the ending. I can understand, up to a point, its enormous popularity with Mexican readers—it almost has a telenovela style OTT-ness—but I wonder if, upon examination, it might be a lot more complex than it seems?
Domestic Violence – Eavan Boland
Some great poems and nary a clunker. Her writing is so dense and complex but also not supercilious or perverse for perversity’s sake.
More Miracles and Mysteries of New Mexico – Jack Kutz
This wasn’t nearly as interesting as the first volume, as it focused more on folk tales and additions/addenda to the previous legends; there was less of the genuinely spooky and more of the “hmm, well, I guess we’ll never know the truth.” This volume was published right before the Internet explosion; I wonder if the Web subsumed the need for more volumes?
Family Values – Wendy Cope
At first I was a little disappointed by rather commonplace poems, whose reliance on very traditional rhyme was neither funny nor charming (which is what I have come to love about Wendy Cope). As the volume progressed and grew more concerned with mortality, it was quite poignant and accessible, which again are some of Cope’s strengths.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
This was our third book club selection, and unanimously enjoyed. While thematically much more complex and geo-chronologically sweeping than Gentlemen of the Road, I still don’t know why Chabon felt the need to apologize for his later, much shorter book. Both of them adhere to the old George Villiers adage of, “What the devil does the plot signify except to bring in good things?” Chabon piles on the good things, from Jewish mysticism (emblematic in the real-life Golem that allows Josef Kavalier to escape Prague) to radio culture to the bohemian excitement of late 1930s in New York to the glamour of the Surrealists, (Dalí, Orson Welles, and a few other celebrities make cameos), to the sordid show business of Houdini and magic (quite liberally lifted from the background of Walter Gibson, it must be said). However, there is definitely a serious side to the narrative that is missing from Gentlemen of the Road (despite the slaughter that happened in that story, it all felt slightly distant). This is the backgdrop of the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust, and with Joe we feel frustration, hope, guilt, and despair. This, I guess, is why the novel has to chart the 1950s betrayal of the American Dream and the curiously deflated ending. Chabon loves the male buddy double act and makes it very appealing. It is, of course, a valediction of the power of comic books, which is an odd thing for a novel of its length. I found Rosa’s character to be rather disappointing at first—I’d say she fails the Bechdel test often except in her scenes discussing comic book writing in the 1950s—but gradually she grew on me. I didn’t want it to end, but the ending definitely stamped a lid on the whole thing.
Once Upon the Orient Wave: Milton and the Arab Muslim World – Eid Abdallah Dahiyat
An interesting and elegant little book which suggests possible sources which Milton may have come across in translation though it seems unlikely he knew Arabic. The history of the Arab reception of Milton was also explored, predicated on a Shelley-esque understanding of Milton as Revolutionary.
Cold Soup – Nic Aubury
I’m all for new poets, and God knows we need more light verse. Though Aubury is no Wendy Cope (even at her latter, less substantial), some of the poems raised more than a titter or a smile. However, many, frustratingly, just didn’t scan.
Beguiling Miss Bennet – ed. Lindsay Ashford and Caroline Oakley
I can honestly say I’m in very good company in this book. There was only one story that I thought was a serious miscalculation, and one muse that I thought was well-written but had no idea what the Austen connection was. I don’t know that there was a single story from Emma, and very few (if any) from Northanger Abbey –there were quite a few about all Bennet sisters but Lizzy. There were some breathtakingly good stories as well, which was very inspiring.
Mortal – Ivy Alvarez
I had to admire the way this poetry collection built and assembled its themes, reworking them so that the whole was much more than the sum of its parts.
The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
Ten years after having read At Swim-Two-Birds, which impressed me as something different to everything I’d read before (or have since), this later novel of O’Brien’s was completely mental, a sad, frightening labyrinth of a book, sometimes quite funny, but always dazzling in its strangeness. What a shame the book was rejected and had to wait 30 years for the light of day. Can you imagine Life and Fate and The Third Policeman meeting in the ether?
The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder – William Hope Hodgson
A chance hearing of the audio book version of this on BBC Radio once again changed my life forever, causing me to research WHH extensively and even weave him into my May Sinclair project—enigmatic as he and his work remain. This short story collection was a mixed bag and not nearly as intriguing as May Sinclair’s stories. Nevertheless, elements of it were unique and revelatory (Carnacki’s use of photography, and particularly some of the real as opposed to fake hauntings). WHH’s obsessions and omissions remain deeply troubling—swine and the total lack of agency from his female characters, who are the real ghosts in his writing, and indeed most of his characters are ciphers—and the uneasiness of the writing is part of what makes it enduring. I think this may be best typified in “The Searcher of End House,” which ironically has a lot in common with “The Intercessor”!
The Legends of Ashildr – James Goss, Jenny Colgan, David Llewellyn, Justin Richards
You have to read The Terrible Zodin 19 for my review.
The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson
A short novel, adapted faithfully in the radio version; strangely uneven and open to all kinds of interpretation, but the sections when the Recluse goes on his voyages into other dimensions and/or the end of the solar system are still incredible and among the most evocative science fiction ever written.
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
This was quite a unique read, and you have to admire the audacity of it. Furthermore, it being my first Virginia Woolf novel, I have to comment on her low-key humor and extraordinary passages of writing, both highbrow and profound but also accessible and true. It’s a puzzling novel, feeling both half-formed and self-contained at the same time.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
It was not my intention to go my whole life having never read any Virginia Woolf and then read two back to back. This was a very interesting experimental novel, and I liked the way it captured interior worlds and some startling images and insights (less insightful, I found, than Orlando, and somehow the statements were profoundly enigmatic). I can’t warm to Woolf as a person, but her writing was definitely powerful and seemed to be full of the spirit of modernity.
The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins
There was a world of difference between this novel and Collins’ later work (which I have uniformly loved). It was painfully conventional, which was hard to bear in Collins, with his hero and heroine (Leonard and Rosamund) far less engaging than even their counterparts in The Moonstone. Uncle Joseph was a far more rounded foreigner than, for example, the Italian in Little Dorrit, and Sarah Leeson and Mrs Treverton, while naturally imbued with too much stage melodrama, were at least interesting. The “villains,” Mr Treverton and Shrowe, had scope to be quite interesting indeed but remained impotent due, once again, to the conventional nature of this novel. You could see Collins practicing for future characters and plots he would enact with much more personality and individualism.
The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater – Thomas DeQuincey
I found this rather disappointing. It’s something I’d heard of for a long time but had never been induced to read. The majority of it was taken up with reminisces of the author’s education during the very early nineteenth century—a masculine “rebel without a cause” counterpart to Jane Austen, if you will. At points I found him an engaging narrator, but I’m still not quite sure how to “value” this as a work of literature. It’s resisting categorization.
Lud Heat – Iain Sinclair
I had a similar reaction to this as I did to From Hell (which is hardly surprising): mild suspicion. Sinclair is foremost a poet and packs in his fragmented, overdetermined images with passionate, intense abandon—not caring if you’re too thick to make heads or tails of his frequently dense allusions. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, to be sure; I especially liked the more accessible vignettes from his work as a gardener in London’s churchyards. Nevertheless, it’s hard to take completely seriously.
Voyage in the Dark – Jean Rhys
This novel by the author of Wide Sargasso Sea is not as well-known as it should be. I found this really emotionally involving despite its deceptively simple readability. Anna is clearly clinically depressed in a society that is not prepared to help her, due to her not acting the way she should—her love of fun puts her a few years too early (it’s 1914, remember), her awkward, dreamy helplessness with men allows her to slide into prostitution because she lacks a moral guide—her Black Caribbean servant Francine is no help to her in London. Anna’s troubling desire to be Black plays havoc with people’s perceptions of her. Despite Anna’s sometimes stupid and selfish behavior, I feel a lot of pity for her and by proxy for Jean Rhys.
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
This had a—forgive the pun—killer opening and premise, I liked the idea of suburbanites so bored with their lives and inadequacies that they project themselves into fantasy worlds, but Rachel was a far-from-detached observer. The incestuous doubling of the main characters seemed to speak of superficiality rather than complexity (why name characters so similar Tom and Scott? I couldn’t for the life of me keep them straight). Indeed, I think the main flaw was that the characters were ciphers, cinema-ready sketches. I don’t read many thrillers, but the horrifying casualness of the men’s violence against women was sickening. Rachel came off as extremely pathetic rather than sympathetic. I liked my ending better.
London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line – Iain Sinclair
Rather more accessible than the occult excess of Lud Heat, and with some particularly cogent and interesting meditations on Angela Carter, JG Ballard, Brompton Cemetery, and Kensington Olympia, Sinclair was at his best in the rare moments when he let the vulnerable real him (and his history) come through. The presentation of history was less dense and opaque which made it easier to absorb. I got a kick of reading about locales (New Cross Gate, Canada Water, Harlesden, Kensal Rise, Old Kent Road), that seldom if ever make it into mainstream travelogue or fiction.
The Three Sisters – May Sinclair
This novel was an interesting and troubling introduction to May Sinclair’s full-length fiction. I feel it’s accurate to say it distils Sinclair’s main thematic concerns: exposing the Victorian double-binds on women (patriarchy and the strictures of Church of England morality); frankly underlining the importance of (fulfilled) sexuality to a health woman’s life (though you can feel her struggling somewhat with early psychoanalysis’ androcentricism and how to take ownership of this, particularly in light of hysteria); an ambivalent attitude toward self-sacrifice for the best of reasons (although ultimately Gwenda’s self-sacrifice has seemed to ruin her life and, to a lesser extent, Steven’s, it did seem to help in liberating Alice and loosening the Vicar’s tyranny). It seems significant that the most liberated and honest character was Essy the Yorkshire maid. The Brontë associations were prominent at the beginning but a more modern (ie 1910s) aesthetic won out as the book wore on. I’m really curious to read Mary Olivier and Harriet Frean now and see if they add stylistic daring to Sinclair’s ambitious, deeply felt, yet slightly creaky attempt at psychoanalytic fiction.
An Unreliable Guide to London – ed. Kit Caless
A new book (2015) and crowd-funded as well, with short stories and/or nonfiction about “off the beaten path” parts of London. This could have used a more careful edit. The quality of the stories/pieces was variable, with some following the quasi-impenetrable psycho-geographical style of Iain Sinclair, some light on substance, a few daring and a very few giving a good story while presenting a real sense of place. Stephanie Victoire’s piece about Clapham South was to my mind the most satisfying.
The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi
At first this seemed like a multicultural version of Adrian Mole (with a bit of Velvet Goldmine thrown in for good measure). However, it seemed much more complex (and promiscuous) than that, until everything just sort of stopped with Karim getting a job in a soap opera (presumably EastEnders) and his father and Eva getting married. I guess it was more or less a happy ending for all involved (Changez and Jamila seeming to have come to some arrangement and even Karim’s mother getting on with her life), but there was no closure for Karim’s story. Still, I found it very funny, if shocking places.
The Light Between the Oceans – M.L. Stedman
You will probably have seen the movie by now. This book had a very interesting story and for the most part avoided soppy sentimentality. It was a bit superficial on characterization and lacked a depth of historical feeling, though the sections which described the lighthouse definitely came alive the most for me. I was surprised at the conservatism of the ending. But I enjoy reading books set in Australia.
Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch
Take that, China Miéville! This was much more fun and featured some stunning set pieces—the riot at the Royal Opera House, Peter Grant pursuing the villain to the Neolithic period on the Thames’ shores. Plus, some memorable and appealing characters, such as Grant himself, Molly the . . . lamia or whatever she is, and sassy Beverley Brook. I appreciated the thought-through way magic and science could co-exist and the way real British policing was humorously but authentically described. Further, Aaronovitch’s knowledge and love of London were on par with anything the London Literature course has read. Great fun!
This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City – John Rogers
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: this book reminded me, in its conversational tone, embrace-all sense of culture and history, its beer-swilling football-watching hero, of a friend of mine, whom I’m convinced could have written a better version of this book. Not that it was badly written or not enjoyable; in fact, it was the opposite, and it was intriguing to learn about neglected parts of London (particularly as they were walked across, and not by someone as eccentric as Iain Sinclair). Also Rogers provided a bibliography which was jolly decent of him.
The Beetle – Richard Marsh
Well, there’s no comparing this with Dracula, which was its contemporary though was outsold by The Beetle at first—like W H Hodgson’s work, it’s flawed hack writing with some excellent ideas. The opening and closing in particular were very exciting, rather scary, and quite disturbing. If he hadn’t felt obliged to go into contemporary romantic/comic mode, tonally it would have been better. None of the characters are particularly lifelike or memorable, though Atherton makes an interesting variation on the gentleman-scientist. Marsh’s satire of the New Woman is harebrained and quite distasteful. However, it has to be said that his creation of a really amorphous and frightening monster in the Beetle is effective, creative, and anomalous.
Demons and Shadows: The Best of Robert Westall Vol. 1 – Robert Westall
I quite enjoyed these many ingenious and often quite spooky tales. I was very impressed by a BBC Radio adaptation of Westall’s book The Wheatstone Pond and found out he was an extremely prolific author, though he wrote mainly for young adults. I wasn’t disappointed by this collection of his short stories. There are certain tropes, as all writers seem to have—antiques, WWII, Church of England, motorcycles, cats—but each tale is unique enough to make this unobtrusive. Westall’s talent was best demonstrated in his opening story, “Rachel and the Angel,” but all his stories which feature cats are among the most disturbing and memorable.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven – Sherman Alexie
This was more abstracted and poetic than the more conventionally narrative-driven book [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian] I’d read previously and in part is slightly sadder as it focused on a kaleidoscope view of a reservation community near Spokane. While it was unsurprisingly part autobiographical (especially the distaste for the life of an urban Indian), it was as sharply observed and readable as his other works.
Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm – Thich Nhat Hanh
A really interesting book, both simple and damnably difficult to emulate (the difficult thing about Buddhism is trying to learn to let go). I’d be very interested to read more of his books.
The Reverse of the Medal—Patrick O’Brian
Midway through the Aubrey/Maturin series and finally catching up. Very enjoyable as usual, and quite a clever cat-and-mouse game. Very little time at sea, atypically, and very much a Stephen book—Jack is unfortunately degraded through a farcical trial and a painful sentence. Delightful color and a true cinematic sense in the scenes and plotting. Damn, what a cliffhanger!
Dance Hall of the Dead – Tony Hillerman
This very early novel in the Navajo Detectives series featured only Joe Leaphorn. It was enjoyable and skilfully written and, oddly, barely dated despite the fact it was set in a world that has been gone for more than 40 years (okay, the hippie commune did date it a little). I found it quite fascinating to read in contrast to Scalped and the later Hillerman books I had previously read (Coyote Waits, A Thief of Time).
Hard Times – Charles Dickens
I picked this up on impulse (it won out over Pickwick Papers because it was shorter) as I knew I could rely on Dickens for a stimulating and entertaining read. After much consideration, I decided to move backwards in his repertoire to a decidedly un-Dickensian work in many ways. Mainly set in Coketown (aka Manchester), it is an “industrial” novel with more sentimentality than the more balanced and realistic North and South. Dickens’ social conscience was clearly being exercised as he sought to tear down Utilitarianism as a mode of life. His minor comic characters were as delightful as ever—though Harthouse definitely seemed a practice run for Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit—and I did laugh aloud a lot. I had mixed feelings about some of the more significant characters—such as Louisa, Bounderby, and Stephen Blackpool—but was pleasantly surprised that Mr Gradgrind had the humanity to understand that he had been mistaken.
The Vatican Diaries – John Thavis
I found this to be a fabulous and interesting world about which I have a healthy curiosity. Thavis writes with serious skill, managing to combine accuracy, journalistic integrity, and flair, the skills of a consummate storyteller, and a sympathetic yet critical viewpoint within the Vatican. I would love to know how things have changed since Pope Francis was elected.
And the graphic novels . . .
Darth Vader Vol. 2: Shadows and Secrets – by Kieron Gillen, art by Salvador Larroca, Edgar Delgado, Joe Carmagna
Normally I’ve been able to pick up a graphic novel series in the middle and jump right in (it was that way for Fables). I had real trouble with the second volume of Darth Vader—despite sort of understanding what was going on, I spent a lot of time scratching my head, hoping things would resolve if I went back to Volume 1. We’ll see if that’s the case. Even so, I found this quite addictive. Despite some initial misgivings (as Jamie said upon seeing the cover, “Darth Vader has a girlfriend?!”), this slots in nicely between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back (and, as I later found out, between the first and second volume of the new main Star Wars title, which is a bit mind-boggling). It’s all the incidental characters who are hard to place immediately. Aphra (whose last name I can’t help but think is Behn) is supposed to be an archaeologist, but she just looks like a cute girl space pilot. She’s a little bit annoying, actually, and I have a hard time sympathizing with her. She lets her murderous droid 000 torture a Naboo undertaker into telling her that Amidala had given birth before dying; she doesn’t even have the balls to do her own torture. She appears to be playing everyone—the Empire, Vader, bounty hunters—off each other to her own advantage; in fact, she feels a bit like a Mary Sue. I hope she will improve, or I can at least understand the rationale behind Vader hiring her (in Volume 1). Nevertheless, the real reason to enjoy this comic is the super way Gillen and Larroca realize Vader. On screen, lingering close ups gave us an inkling of what Vader was thinking, subtly shading him; the same thing happens in Volume 2, complemented by the glossy, colourful, and beautifully-rendered art. You can really feel like Anakin, or a version of Anakin, is still inside, especially as Vader is pursuing his side investigation into Luke Skywalker (the big bombshell is that Anakin now knows he had a son and probably has put two and two together). Keep in mind that Vader is sort of being investigated as he pursues his own avenues and is perfectly willing to take any means necessary to cover his tracks. I’m not yet getting the human side of the Empire which I sought in Death Troopers, but we’ll see.
Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes – by Jason Aaron, art by John Cassaday, Laura Martin, Chris Eliopoulous
The action starts on Cymoon 1 with a daring con from Han Solo, with all the usual suspects in tow. This story slots in very well just shortly after the events of A New Hope, showing Luke lacking confidence and trying to retrace his steps to Tatooine (where he is intercepted by Boba Fett, who I find tiresome and don’t understand why he’s considered such a bad-ass). In any case, Boba Fett finds out that the pilot who blew up the Death Star was named . . . Skywalker . . . which is obviously information of importance to Vader (to an extent he cracks a big window . . . dun dun dun). The consequences of this fight will be felt in Shadows and Secrets, in which Vader and Aphra blow up the moisture farm, Anakin thus obliterating his last ties to the world of the living (I guess). Baaaack to Skywalker Strikes. It’s action-packed, as the rebel attack on the factory there is thwarted by the arrival of Vader, who confronts Luke for (if this is canon) the first time. The interaction between Han and Leia is very good, quite funny, and it’s rather amusing that once they hijack an Imperial Walker, all Leia wants to do is stomp on Vader (well, he did help destroy Alderaan, but dramatic irony and all that . . .). There are some very nice moments, such as when Luke has to hold himself back from killing Sand People at Obi-Wai’s hermitage, and when Han tries to have a romantic drink with Leia on a paradise planet. Less enjoyable is that Han’s wife catches up with him . . . The likenesses in the art are truly superb, you can almost hear the John Williams music in the background.
Star Wars: Shattered Empire – by Greg Rucka, art by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, Emilio Laiso, Andres Mossa, Joe Carmagna
This takes place immediately after Return of the Jedi. Although it’s the weakest of the three I read, they’ve obviously brought in the big guns—Greg Rucka!—to good effect. The art is a bit too shiny for me, and the likenesses are not nearly as good as in Skywalker Strikes. Shara Bey, one of the rebels’ best X-Wing pilots—airbrushed into the world of the films, you might cynically say—is eye candy, though the seriousness of purpose Rucka brings to her helps. She is, you find out very quickly, the mother of Poe Dameron, who evidently proves the rule that you can’t be a great pilot in Star Wars unless one (or both) your parents were. I do like the fact that, despite the impression you get in the film, the Empire doesn’t just suddenly give up. The mysterious Messenger brings destruction to Naboo, where Leia, Shara, and the current Queen team up to fly around and shoot things. Girl power. Shara is then recruited by Luke to help him infiltrate an Empire lab and steal some Force-filled trees (which evidently end up in his hermitage which we see at the end of The Force Awakens? Yes?). Also in this volume is Princess Leia #1, whose art is questionable and whose writing . . . is mixed. I’ll review it, I think, when I actually read the full TPB.
Scalped Vol. 5 High Lonesome – by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guéra, Davide Furno, Francesco Francavilla
This is the first volume of Scalped that I’ve really had mixed feelings about. I think 4 slowed down a bit after the godlike phenomenal rise of the first three volumes. I thought the first issue of Volume 5 had a killer conclusion. The rest, though, moved rather sluggishly. I’m not sure I needed to know more about Diesel. And to be honest, I’d really like some decent, self-respecting female characters. The bombshell of this volume is that we now know who killed the Feds in the 1970s and Gina. But does Dash know it? Will it be possible for the right people to put the clues together in time?
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection – ed. Hope Nicholson
This volume from 2015 is mainly by and about Native Canadians (or indigenous Canadians? Or First Nation Canadians?). The art is all excellent (though much of it is done by non-natives), and it was evidently crowd-funded. Nevertheless, it was a bit different than what I expected: I expected something like Scalped where the problems and everyday real-life of native peoples was explored in honest detail. Moonshot is more about celebrating native mythologies, bringing them to a wider audience in graphic novel form, and most of the stories are quite short. My favorite pieces were the ones that took the native stories and re-envisioned them in a futuristic sci fi setting (“Ue-Pucase: Water Master” by Arigon Starr and David Cutler, based on a Muscogee Creek legend; “Strike and Bolt” by Michael Sheyahshe and George Freeman, based on a Caddo legend; and “Ayanisach” by Todd Houseman and Ben Shannon, Cree, which has a twist ending), though I also liked the stories that were simple recounting of childhood (“Tlicho Nàowo: Return of the Spirit” by Richard Van Camp, Rosa Mantla, and Nicholas Burns, from the Tlicho of northwest Canada; “Copper Heart” by Elizabeth LaPensée, Claude St Aubin, and Andy Stanleigh, Anishnabe). I also liked “Home” by Ian Ross, Lovern Kindzierski, Adam Gorham, and Peter Dawes, which was about repatriation of artifacts, grave-robbing, and the kind of displays we are used to seeing in national museums (The Lone Ranger film comes to mind). I was also very impressed by David Mack’s multimedia story about Echo aka Maya Lopez, an indigenous and Latin superhero for Marvel who is also deaf. Mack is Cherokee. The book is beautifully made.
Four Doctors – by Paul Cornell, art by Neil Edwards and Ivan Nunes
This is a TP of a five-part adventure from 2015 from Titan Books, the American Doctor Who comics that are slightly different to the DWM ones. I was seduced by the cover of the Eighth Doctor TP which is just being released, but my main reaction to Four Doctors was . . . what the hell? I really couldn’t understand what was going on. In the time-honored tradition, it should also be titled “Three and 0.75 Doctors” as the War Doctor is only there for a few pages (I still don’t understand why he was there at all), and the Ninth Doctor only gets one page. Maybe I’m just too stupid to understand timey wimey stories (I think I’ve done all right with some of the Big Finish ones, like Flip-Flop which I think is brilliant). I also know that Doctors sniping at each other in multi-Doctor stories is traditional, but I found it very difficult to hear the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in this at all—strangely enough, the most visceral and real Doctor was the Twelfth, who, for my sins, I don’t much like. I was irritated here by another Clara-is-too-smart-for-her-own-good adventure, and it was hard to get a feel for the personalities of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors’ companions, Gabby and Alice, respectively (though good to see how ethnically diverse companions are starting to get). I like the fact that we’re on Marinus and that Cornell tries to do something with the Voord, but . . . it just doesn’t go anywhere for me, I’m left feeling like “so what?” I was really annoyed that there was no Ninth Doctor (this must be for legal reasons, surely?) but at least that part of the story got a good explanation, surely the best part of the whole thing:
ELEVEN: I reckon I know the real reason why he wasn’t involved in all this—
TWELVE: Yes. The Voord couldn’t find even a single timeline, in all those billions, where he was anything other than fantastic.
Aw, bless. I love the Ninth Doctor. The art was good and the likenesses generally good, although sometimes it had too much of a digital look, which made it somehow seem like something any old person could have created on their own Wacom tablet.
Daredevil: Return of the King – by Ed Brubaker, art by Michael Lark, David Aja, Stefano, John Lucas, Matt Hollingsworth, Jose Villarrubia, Chris Eliopoulos (Issues 116-119, 500)
So, I’m finally unravelling this: in 1998, Daredevil was revived. Then at some point before Waid/Samnee rebooted everything (in 2014?), Brubaker was writing the run. As you can see from what I said last year, this run was enjoyable (though not as visually stunning as Waid/Samnee), and the pages are crowded with panels, which is both odd and satisfyingly claustrophobic. That said, I didn’t find this TP very memorable. I can’t stand Bullseye, Lady Bullseye is just as boring, and while the Kingpin is made slightly more interesting in these stories, I still find him rather a yawn-fest (I don’t know that there are any Daredevil villains I like). And Electra? Please gag with me a spoon. My enjoyment of Daredevil, therefore, stems almost entirely from Murdock and Nelson. This story gets incredibly continuity-heavy as it sees Daredevil leaving custody of his comatose wife Milla to her parents and agreeing to become the leader of the Hand, a ninja organization rather similar to Ra’s al-Ghul’s group in Batman (hence the title). Meh.
Daredevil: West-Case Scenario—by Mark Waid, Brian Michael Bendis and Karl Kesel, art by Javier Rodriguez, Alex Maleev, Karl Kesel, Chris Samnee, Alvaro Lopez, Tom Palmer (issues 1.50, 6-10)
I’ve hit a mediocre run of Daredevil, which saddens me. I gave up on reading the continuation to the above and decided to go for early parts of Waid/Samnee run. Issue #1.50 is some kind of special one-off look into Daredevil’s future when he’s 50 years old (to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Daredevil). It’s got some quite interesting ideas—Matt pushes his son as hard as his father pushed him, despite or because of this chain of events; the Owl’s daughter causes the world to go blind and to save everyone, Daredevil must sacrifice his special powers and go honest-to-goodness blind—but the art wasn’t my cup of tea (mostly the way Alvaro Lopez drew faces). Alex Maleev’s art is altogether different, though Bendis’ story made want to barf (was it irritation or jealousy that made me hate the fact Daredevil showed up at the open window of a bank teller he rescued?). I think Karl Kesel’s contribution was mainly fan service. Issues #6-7 were more familiar territory for me, and I enjoyed the story of Matt’s real mother, who became a nun, and why she left him and his father (an unsubtle but well-intentioned emphasis was placed on her postpartum depression). What I didn’t like so much was the interference of a bunch of other Marvel superheroes (yawn) and the still-slightly-racist trip to Wakanda. Issues #8-10 were altogether the best part of this TP, with much moodier and more impressive art from Samnee. The story was also interesting, about the purple-skinned offspring of the Purple Man, whose power of suggestion the Master would envy, though his children’s powers are even more impressive. Daredevil in San Francisco is a nice interlude, but his partner in law, Kristen McDuffie, is another wet blanket.
Daredevil: Dark Nights—by Lee Weeks, David Lapham, Jimmy Palimotti, art by Thony Silas, Nelson DeCastro
To be honest, I’ve no idea where this run fits in with all that came before, though I suspect before the Waid/Samnee run (the TP was published in 2014) because Matt is working with Kirstin/Kristen. “Angels Unaware” is an epic, written and drawn by Weeks, in which Daredevil struggles through the worst blizzard in New York City’s history to deliver a heart to a girl awaiting organ transplant. The art is good but strangely old-fashioned-looking (think early ‘90s). “A Man Named Buggit” is very odd, stretching the limits of credulity, stuffed with maddening interference from other Marvel superheroes. Despite all this, it has amusing and poignant moments and a rare instance of the villain getting comeuppance literally via deus ex machina. Rounding it off is “In the Name of the King,” another odd one in that it’s set in Miami and Cuba, and Daredevil has female counterpart, Misty, who has a bionic arm. The sexual tension between them is enjoyable, though it’s disappointing that every opportunity to focus on Misty’s body is blatantly exploited; it’s not even equal opportunity as the ratio of half-naked Matt images to half-naked Misty images is disgracefully poor.
Star Wars: The Old Republic: Volume 2, Threat of Peace—by Rob Chestney—art by Alex Sanchez (issues #1-27)
If only I’d read the prose explanation at the back of this—it proves that Chestney can write a coherent story. Nevertheless, something got lost between story and script, because this was a huge, incoherent mess. I couldn’t keep the characters straight, and it was a real challenge to force myself to finish the book. I also found Sanchez’s art to be quite poor and rather muddy; I expect he was on a tight deadline and had to produce stultifying amounts of art to keep up with demand.
Dark Knight: A True Batman Story—by Paul Dini—art by Eduardo Risso
This incredibly personal memoir in graphic form from Paul Dini pulls at the heartstrings. Paul Dini will be familiar to many as one half of the creator of Harley Quinn, and an outwardly successful writer of Batman: The Animated Series and Tiny Toons in the early 1990s. This nicely illustrated memoir shows how struggling with his inner demons spilled out into visible reality when he was mugged and beaten walking home one night. It’s another one of those writers’ tales which say a lot about the creative process but also about a writer as a person.
Fiction 27/57 47%
Nonfiction 15/57 26%
Poetry 4/57 7%
Graphic Novels 11/57 19%