Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Best of 2013

It's been something of an interesting year. I wish I could say it's been interesting for the right reasons, but, quite frankly, the year has been total rubbish on a personal level as I've lunged from crisis to crisis with barely a chance to draw breath.

However, I've kept up with my reading and, at times, my writing. Writing has proven difficult this year as my commute to work changed in April and now takes two hours longer than it did prior to my job change. With time at a premium, I've lacked the energy and drive at times to crack open Pages and get to work on some fiction. I've even struggled to keep up with my blogs.

On the other hand, I have started writing a column for my local newspaper. 300 words a week may not sound like very much, and it isn't, but it has kept me ticking over for the past 4 months as well as familiarising me with a style of writing I haven't needed to use much in the past.

I have, however, managed first drafts of a couple of hefty novellas, each clocking in at more than 20,000 words. In addition to those, I've created a handful of short stories and made in-roads on starting a novel shortly. My word count may not have hit my usual target of 100,000 for the year, but I've not done too badly, all things considered.

But what were the best things I came across this year? I haven't been to the cinema all that often (last going to see Kick Ass 2 a few months back), but I have read more than I have at any point in my life. Over the last 12 months I've read around 200 short stories, half-a-dozen graphic novels, 5 history books, a handful of books about football, and roughly 60 unread novels as well at 20-some re-reads.

So, my personal year's best is as follows:

Best Film

Star Trek Into Darkness was a thrilling film. Granted, I haven't seen too much this year (as explained), but of those I did see this was comfortably the best. It built on the good work of Star Trek XI and, despite something of a cop-out conclusion, provided a nice set-up to future Star Trek adventures following Spock and the gang.

Best Short Story Collection

I may be a couple of years behind, but Paolo Bacigalupi's collection Pump Six and other stories was magnificent. I don't often devour short story collections and prefer to make my way through them slowly, but I went through the eleven offered in this collection in a matter of three or four days. Bacigalupi will, in my view, be one of the defining writers of this generation with his dark and unsettling stories with a bleak outlook on the world. He's also undeniably brilliant.

Best Work of Non-Fiction

Annoyingly, I read the old edition of Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson about a week after the updated edition came out. I only found this out yesterday. 'Annoyed' doesn't quite cut the mustard. I loved Wilson's take on the tactical history of football. His hatred of the Charles Reep school of footballing thought also helped to win me over. It hasn't quite changed my views on how football should be played, but it's difficult to argue with his insightful analysis of how football has changed down the years. Writing about how football is played on the pitch is difficult, but Wilson manages it superbly. Now for the updated edition...

Honourable mention to Rubicon by Tom Holland, which is as good a piece of narrative history I've ever read. Holland charts the rise and fall of the Roman Republic with élan, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Horror Novel

I only read three horror novels this year, but all three were good ones. Both The Shining by Stephen King and The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher impressed me, but without doubt the best horror novel I read this year was Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. It was brilliant. The Indian underworld was grotesque and horrifying and, above all, believable, and I found myself sucked in. Simmons did more than just create a book of scares and thrills, though; he got under my skin and had me haunted for weeks after I finished the book.

Best Fantasy Novel

I've only just finished it, it's true, but The Lies of Locke Lamora knocked my socks off. Not since The Name of the Wind have I been sucked into a fantasy novel and found myself so utterly immersed. That it managed to impress me despite me having very high expectations of it it all the more impressive. I'm already looking forward to getting cracking on the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies.

Best SF Novel

This was a toss-up between three. And in the end, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes wins out simply because I loved the characters more than those in Moxyland (also by Lauren Beukes) and Osama (by Lavie Tidhar). All three were brilliant reads. But The Shining Girls made me sympathise with the protagonist more than the others. That said, Osama's concept alone runs The Shining Girls very close for the title.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Shining Girls

At the start of the year, I promised to make a concerted effort to read more stories and books by lady writers. Over the years, I've neglected them. Yes, I've read Ursula LeGuin, and gone through the annual anthologies from Gardner Dozois and Hartwell and Kramer, but my reading has always been dominated by the products of male imagination. I'd say women contributed 10% of my reading material. This wasn't a situation I liked.

In 2013 to date, I've completed 88 books. Of these 88 books, women have at the very least contributed to 29. And I've made some discoveries in that time. I've returned to the disturbing imagination of Shirley Jackson. I've found the genesis of Connie Willis's time-travel books. I've visited the patriarchal totalitarianism/feminist utopia of Sheri Tepper's mind (from that, you'll be able to work out that I couldn't work out what The Gate to Women's Country was). And I've just started revealing the Aztec world of Aliette De Bodard's creation.

But none have entertained me as richly as Lauren Beukes, the South African author of The Shining Girls.

She's not a new discovery, but is a somewhat new talent. I read Zoo City last year, and Moxyland earlier this. The former - an urban fantasy with a South African twist - wasn't really my thing; I've never particularly enjoyed urban fantasy. But the latter was an acutely observed SF tale of the (very) near future which resonated with me. Then there was something about the South African setting, characters and sensibilities which was so fresh when compared to the clichéd Western European/US settings of far too many works. I loved Moxyland, and plan to re-read it before too long.

The Shining Girls, released earlier this year, is Beukes's third novel, and represents a major change in her setting. Gone are the run-down ghettos of Cape Town and Johannesburg, with the skyscrapers and downtown dumpsters of Chicago taking their place. But the writing remains the same; Beukes's style remains brisk but rich, packed with character.

The plot sounds simple, but its execution renders it complex and multi-faceted. A man - Harper Curtis - from the Great Depression stumbles into a time-travelling House, where he feels he is given his mission: kill the shining girls, girls with the potential to make a massive difference in Chicago. The girls are spread across several decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s. One - Kirby - escapes and tries to track him down in 1992-1993.

Simple enough, but the execution of the time-travelling makes events more complex and the story more compelling. Events are set in stone before they occur. There's a sense of inevitability to each of the murders, and trying to plot events in your own mind - trying to make sense of it all - is a reward all of its own. To follow each twist requires concentration. To make the connections and work out events produces a miraculous clarity from what might seem at first to be something of a mess. Beukes is an expert at producing complex, apparently jumbled plotlines that do, in fact, make perfect sense.

The main viewpoint characters are both intriguing. What drives Kirby is plain - she survived what should have been a brutal murder by Harper - but Harper's motivations always seem slightly clouded. Beukes states in the interview at the back that she wanted to debunk the Hannibal Lecter  myth of all serial killers being sophisticated and having a mystique, when in fact they are normally sad, pathetic men with sexual hangups, and she manages this by and large. But I still have a very faint problem with the way he goes from Depression-era loser to time-travelling serial killer on the say-so of the House. I suppose she'd say that he gets the sense of power from the House and that allows him to go on and become the monster he undoubtedly is. But if one thing could be improved in the characterisation, it is that.

However, that's only a very small quibble with an excellent book. Of all the books I've read this year, it's perhaps the first to leave me wanting more and being disappointed when it came to an end. I loved The Shining Girls. I'd recommend it to all and sundry. And it's probably my book of 2013.