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Best of the year 2011

I was going to leave this until January, but everyone else is doing them now. And, let’s face it, there’s only a handful of days left until the end of the year and they’ll be filled with various consumerist festivities. So…

As of 15 December, I had read 156 books in 2011, which I suspect will mean a total on 31 December of slightly less than last year’s 178 books. But then I probably wrote more this year than I did in 2010. Of my reading, 4% were anthologies, and 12% non-fiction… which means of the remainder that 28% were books by women writers and 56% by male writers. I still need to work on that. Genre-wise, 44% was science fiction, 16% was mainstream, 8% was fantasy, and 16% were graphic novels.

Of those 156 books, I have picked six which were, for me, the best I read during the twelve months. They are:

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), should come as little surprise as I raved about when I read it back in April. Initially a Crowlesque fantasy, it takes a peculiar turn halfway through which makes it something weird and wonderful all of its own.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), is another work by an author who continues to astonish me with each novel of his I read. This one has the most beautifully-handled non-linear narrative I’ve come across in fiction, not to mention one of the best-drawn female protagonists in science fiction. I honestly don’t know if this book is better than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or merely just as excellent. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), suffers under a somewhat forced title, but who cares. Because it contains loads of photographs of amazing Modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Not all of the buildings still exist, and many of them have weathered the years badly. But there they are, captured in all their glory in this book.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and of all the books published at that time this one is perhaps the best-looking. Chaikin went through the many thousands of photographs take by, and of, the Apollo astronauts, and picked out ones that had rarely been seen before. And then he married those photographs with the words of the astronauts themselves – taken from interviews, transcriptions, etc.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), was a book I read under a misapprehension. Though it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, many complained it was partly fictional – inasmuch as it told its story using a cast of real and invented people in a threaded narrative. However, I’d mistakenly understood that Red Plenty not only covered the years of the Soviet Union’s existence but also extrapolated it into an alternate present in which the Soviet system had succeeded. That would the be the “sf” part of the BSFA Award, you see. Not so. But never mind, I still loved it.

Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011), I pre-ordered because I’d thought Gilman’s 1998 novel, Halfway Human, very good, and because a write-up of the plot sounded as though it would appeal. And so it did. A fantasy, but not in the traditional epic/heroic mould. I wrote about it here.

Honorable Mentions:
There are a number of these this year, more so than usual. First, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel, a very strong debut with some very interesting elements, and some that didn’t quite work for me (see here and here). Eric Brown’s Wellsian The Kings of Eternity is his strongest work for a number of years, and he deserves to be read more than he is. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is an excellent anthology that does exactly what it says on the tin and introduced me to several authors I’m determined to read more (see here and here). Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge (see here) and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (see here) were the best two novels from my challenge to read twelve books during the year by female science fiction writers. Stretto was an excellent end to L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer managed to make fascinating a topic in which I have zero interest, John F Kennedy’s presidency. Finally, a pair of rereads are worthy of mentions: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.

By 15 December, I had watched 183 films. That’s including seasons of television series watched on DVD. Twenty-seven of them I reviewed for and The Zone. Only one I saw at the cinema: Apollo 18. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction film or television, though I will happily watch them. This may well explain my choices for my top six of the year:

Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène (2004), is Senegalese director Sembène’s ninth feature-length film, and the first one by him I’ve seen. It is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and revolves around the refusal of three girls to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation. They are protected by the wife of one of the village’s important men, who herself refused to let her own daughter undergo the same disgusting procedure. This leads to a revolt by the village’s womenfolk, but it ends badly.

Mammoth, Lukas Moodysson (2009). I very much liked Moodysson’s earlier films Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), Together (Tillsammans) and Lilya 4-Ever, but thought the experimental Container was pretty much unwatchable. Mammoth, however, is not only a welcome return to form, it is a superb indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East. Judging by some of the comments the film has generated, I may the only person to see it in that light. Ah well. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good in the male lead role – and that’s in a cast that is uniformly excellent.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is a Norwegian spoof. The title may have been a bit of a giveaway there. It posits an alternate 1980s in which Norwegian traitor Arne Treholt was not a spy for the Soviets but the head of a secret royal force of ninjas. As a spoof of late 1970s / early 1980s action films, Norwegian Ninja is pitch-perfect, but it is its use of real-life footage, and the way it neatly twists real history, that turns it in to a work of genius. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), was not a film I expected to appeal to me: a noir-ish thriller set among the hillbillies of the Ozarks. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it very very good indeed. It takes place in a world peopled by some of the scariest people I’ve seen depicted on celluloid. And they’re not scary because they’re psychopaths or sociopaths, they’re scary because they need to be to survive in that culture.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), was recommended to me, and it was a good call. A black comedy following the fortunes of a pair of rogues during WWII in Belgrade and the years after under Tito. One rises high in the post-war government, while the other remains hidden in his cellar, convinced the war is still going.

The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), is the most recent film by a favourite director, so its appearance here should not be a surprise. It’s perhaps less comic than Divine Intervention, but neither does go all bizarre and surreal towards the end. A series of autobiographical vignettes, it builds a narrative of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. Some parts of it are a delight.

Honorable Mentions:
No science fiction films, I’m afraid. Instead: Israeli thriller, Ajami, set in the titular district of Jaffa; The Wedding Song, which is set during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in World War II and follows the friendship of two female friends, one Jewish and one Arabic; the BBC’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from 1984, starring Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay, and the best of the Bard’s plays I watched during the year; The Secret in their Eyes, a clever thriller from Argentina, which beat Ajami to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010; and finally, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched.

I didn’t think 2011 was shaping up to be a good year for music, but that all changed during the second half of the year. I think that might have happened in previous years too. I bought a reasonable number of new albums and old albums. The best of those are:

Harvest, The Man-Eating Tree (2011), is the band’s second album, and it’s a more commercial and slightly heavier-sounding offering. And Tuomas Tuominen still has one of the best and most distinctive voices in metal. I suspect The Man-Eating Tree are going to be the new Sentenced. Certainly when you think of Finnish metal, it’s The Man-Eating Tree you should be thinking of,  and not Lordi.

The Death of a Rose, Fornost Arnor (2011), is this UK band’s second album and, like their first, was also self-released. Some have said it’s the album Opeth should have made this year. Certainly it borrows the Swedes’ trademark mix of crunching yet intricate death metal and accomplished acoustic parts. It’s very much an album to lose yourself in, and I’m already looking forward to the band’s next offering.

Weaver of Forgotten, Dark Lunacy (2010), was annoyingly expensive as it was also self-released. But in Italy. (And I see now it’s much cheaper. Gah.) It is… epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s melodic death metal, but of a sort to fill vast spaces. I thought Dark Lunacy’s previous album, The Diarist, was excellent, but Weaver of Forgotten is an order of magnitude better.

Brahmavidya : Immortal I, Rudra (2011), is the third of a trilogy of albums, including Brahmavidya : Primordial I and Brahmavidya : Trascendental I. The band are from Singapore, but sing in – I believe – Sanskrit as well as English. It’s three blokes making death metal, but singing about their mythology. Rudra were one of this year’s discoveries, and I now have the T-shirt.

One for Sorrow, Insomnium (2011). Apparently, the only people who don’t like Insomnium are those who’ve never heard them. Each album finds them more polished and technically accomplished than the last, and it continues to astonish me they’re not better known. Insomnium are the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom metal.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is one of those albums that blows you away with the first track… but then can never quite scale those heights again. Opener ‘One Door’ is a blinding song, and if the rest can’t compare, that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is a proggier effort than the band’s first album, and it’s the better for it. Chaos Divine is a band you can tell will improve with each new album.

Honorable Mentions:
I’m sorry, I have to do it: Heritage. I’m giving Opeth’s latest album an honourable mention because, though it took numerous listens before it grew on me, it does contains flashes of brilliance. It’s totally prog, of course, with nary a growl to be heard, and that has to be disappointing… but as a warped vision of old school prog, Heritage is worth its mention. However, Of Death by Byfrost, The Light In Which We All Burn by Laethora and Psychogenocide by Nervecell all get mentions because they’re good albums which are very much in keeping with their bands’ sounds. Byfrost I first heard at Bloodstock, and I enjoyed their set so much I wanted the album. Nervecell are from Dubai and, while I was aware of them before, I saw them this year supporting Morbid Angel and they were excellent. Laethora is just Laethora. Finally, Sowberry Hagan by Ultraphallus deserves a special honourable mention for being a fraction away from sheer noise, yet still remaining powerful and heavy and an excellent listen.

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The Best of the Half-Year

We’re halfway through the year, and it’s time to pick out the top five books, films and albums consumed over the previous six months. Not eaten, obviously – but read, watched and listened to, for the first time.

Last year, three out of the five books I picked at the halfway-mark made it through to the end of year top five. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens again this year.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002). I read Herter’s debut, Ceres Storm, shortly after it was published and thought it very good. So as soon as his second book, Evening’s Empire, appeared on Amazon, I bought it. But, unlike his debut, it was fantasy, not sf, and so it sat on my book-shelves for close on a decade until I finally got around to reading it this year. I’ve no idea why it took me so long, but I’m deeply sorry I didn’t read it earlier. Because I loved it. Evening’s Empire starts out as a Crowley-esque fantasy set in a US north-west coastal town, but around halfway through it takes an odd left-hand turn and becomes something quite different. As a side-effect of reading Evening’s Empire, I dug out my copy of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and read it – the main character in Herter’s novel is writing an opera based on Verne’s book – but my edition is from 1966 and I’m told it’s an inferior translation, which probably explains why I didn’t enjoy it very much.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992), was May’s book for my reading challenge and, while I enjoyed January’s book, Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman, more, I think this is the better of the two books. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), may boast a somewhat forced title, but don’t let that put you off. Over a period of some ten or so years, Chaubin photographed modernist buildings throughout the USSR and East Europe, buildings he describes as part of a fourth age of Soviet architecture. The results are strange and quite beautiful.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), may have been yet another book celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, but it’s better than most of those published that year. I wrote about it on my Space Books blog here.

And that’s it. But there are a lot of honourable mentions – books which didn’t quite make the cut into the top five four: Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (1985), though it contained some beautiful prose, was a bit too bleak, and its cast too monstrous, to make the list; Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), the first book by internal chronology of Snow’s Strangers and  Brothers series was an excellent well-observed read; The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010), was a good showcase though I’d not have described every story as “best”, and Icehenge (1984), Kim Stanley Robinson, would have made the top five but for the fact it was a reread; Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), brought the Marq’ssan Cycle to an excellent end, and I really must finish that piece on the series I have planned; American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009), maintains Mercurio’s status as a writer I watch, though the subject matter was not as appealing as his Ascent; God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011), is a very strong debut, with a strong female protagonist and some excellent world-building, but its bleakness just stops it from making the list (I’ll be buying the sequel, though); and The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989), was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and I plan to read the entire series.

Pretty much all the films I watch are on DVD – either rentals, sent for review by Videovista, borrowed, or my own purchases. Most of them have been merely okay, and those that stood out did so by quite a margin. A bit of a cheat this time, as I’m going to include an entire season of a television series.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is, well, is hard to describe. It’s a spoof 1980s action film based on an alternate take on the real life of Norwegian spy and traitor Arne Trehold. I loved it. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an Iraeli thriller, and a bloody excellent one too. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Stuart Burge (1984), was one of the BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays which I’ve been renting and watching. It’s been an interesting exercise, though so far the tragedies have proven superior to the comedies. Except for this one. I don’t know why it worked so well. Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay were good in their roles as Beatrice and Benedick, but that’s hardly unexpected. It just seemed in this play Shakespeare’s wit really sparkled, his characters were appealing, and even Michael Elphick’s strangely sweaty Dogberry with his ponderous malapropisms couldn’t spoil things. The best of the Bard’s so far.

Fringe season 2 (2009). Fringe may just be a 21st century X-Files, but since I was a fan of the X-Files… Except that’s unfair on Fringe which, though it shares some similarities with the X-Files, is also very good television in its own right. I like the series mythology with its war with an alternate universe, and I like the weird science that Walter seems to have spent most of his life researching – and which he has now forgotten. Some episodes were better than others, but overall the quality was high. And the move in this season more toward the mythology made for some good and interesting drama.

Honourable mentions? Tales Of The Four Seasons, Éric Rohmer (1990 – 1998), of which I liked A Summer’s Tale a great deal; The Secret In Their Eyes, Juan José Campanella (2009), was an extremely well-plotted thriller from Argentina; Water Drops On Burning Rocks, François Ozon (2000), is Ozon’s film of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder script and is worth watching for the dancing scene alone; Summertime, David Lean (1955), is beautifully-shot and, for once, I didn’t find Katherine Hepburn annoying in a film.

It has not been an especially good year for music so far. I’ve bought very few CDs, and seen only eleven bands perform live – although, admittedly, two of them were favourites: Anathema and Pallas. Mind you, there’s Bloodstock in a couple of months…

XXV, Pallas (2011), is the band’s sixth studio album, and the first with new vocalist Paul Mackie. I heard it live before I heard the CD, and a very good performance it was too. The band were celebrating twenty-five years together and it showed. XXV feels a little heavier than earlier albums, though it still contains much proggy goodness and even – dare I say it? – a little radio-friendliness in places.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is the second album by an Australian death metal / prog band, and it’s a little more prog than death than their debut. It’s also a much better album. Opening track ‘One Door’ is superb. Each of the songs lulls you into a false sense of security before hammering you with some excellent riffs. A fine piece of work.

Návaz, Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (2011). I’ve been a fan of SSOGE’s mix of doom metal and Moravian folk music since stumbling across some of their songs five or six years ago. Návaz is more folk-oriented than earlier albums, though there’s plenty of chugging guitars and doomy growls to satisfy. The vocal layering at the end of ‘Skryj Hlavu Do Dlaní’ (‘Hide Your Head In His Hands’, according to Google Translate) will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, Lone Star (1994). Welsh 1970s heavy rockers Lone Star have been a favourite band since I was at school. They only released two albums before splitting (a third was recorded, but an inferior copy of it was only released on CD in 2000). Between those two albums, the band swapped vocalists, from Kenny Driscoll to John Sloman, and BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, recorded in 1976 and 1977, showcases some of their songs with each of the two singers. Strangely, the best tracks live are not the best ones on the studio albums – the version of ‘Lonely Soldier’ on BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, for example, is absolutely superb and a classic piece of 1970s rock. Given that this album is only a sample of three radio sessions, I’d happily pay for a CD of all three sets.

Honourable mentions: In Live Concert at The Royal Albert Hall, Opeth (2010), a comprehensive live set recorded at the titular venue with the band’s usual expertise, and accompanied by Åkerfeld’s usual wit; Edge Of The Earth, Sylosis (2011), a good solid death metal concept album with some excellent riffs; Semper Fidelis, Sanctorum (2011), the third album by a young British death metal band – ambitious and mature; Communication Lost, Wolverine (2011), not as immediately likeable as previous albums but definitely a grower.