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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…

Books
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.

Films
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 VideoVista.net 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.

Albums
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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reading & watchings 6: the women-only month

As promised, during July I limited my reading to only books written by women. A dozen, in fact, which is about average for me; as are the subjects covered – science fiction, mainstream, crime, space, and autobiography.

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004), was June’s book for my reading challenge, though I didn’t read it until July. I wrote about it here.

Hav, Jan Morris (2006), I’d been meaning to read for ages – ever since it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, in fact. But, well, I never got around to buying a copy. And that despite reading and very much enjoying Morris’ Fisher’s Face back in 2000. I found a copy of Hav on bookmooch.com last year, and picked it up this month to read as the book is actually an omnibus of two books, and the first was originally published in 1985 and so could be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. The more recent section, ‘Hav of the Myrmidons’, I found less successful. It takes place after the “Intervention”, in a state now booming under the control of a secretive council of Cathars. Quite what is driving the economy is never really revealed, though Morris suggests it may not be entirely legal. Morris visits old sights (almost all gone) and old friends (almost all changed). Progress has been good to Hav – it is now prosperous – but Morris mourns the old Hav, with its rich mélange of culture and history. Which does sort of make the piece read like a paean to nostalgia.

Bluebeard’s Egg , Margaret Atwood (1983), is a collection of short stories. Some I like more than others. The title story especially stood out. I also liked ‘Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother’ a great deal. One of my favourite mainstream short story writers is Helen Simpson, because her stories seem to capture real experiences. Her stories are about the quotidian, but they are written with intelligence and a lightness of touch which belies their content. Atwood in Bluebeard’s Egg , by contrast, seems more focused on the emotional landscapes in her stories and that, perversely, often makes them seem less real. True, the stories in this collection are chiefly focused on relationships and sexual politics, but even so, some of them felt more like plays than attempts to depict slices of life. There was a studiedness to the situations they describe, and I found that a little distancing. I have yet to make up my mind about Atwood’s fiction, though I’ve only read three of her books. The Handmaid’s Tale is superb, and I remember enjoying The Blind Assassin. I still have plenty more by her on the TBR (for a while, it seemed every local charity shop had one of her books), so we shall see how it goes…

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s writing for many years, and have collected all of her books.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010), I bought because I’d heard good things about from several people. They were wrong. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Beirut Blues, Hanan al-Shaykh (1992), is al-Shaykh’s second novel. I thought her first, Women of Sand & Myrrh, very good indeed, but this one was, to be honest, a bit of a slog. It’s structured as a series of letters by a woman called Asmahan – to her childhood friend, to an ex-lover, to her mother, to Billie Holliday – in which she recounts incidents, and feelings, of life in war-torn Beirut. Some of the writing is lovely, some of the story is quite heart-breaking, and al-Shaykh is extremely good at getting across the realities of the life she describes. In that respect, Beirut Blues provides an excellent window on a place, its people and events that readers in the West probably know little about – and certainly very little about what it was actually like for those who suffered through those times. The format unfortunately does distance the reader somewhat and nothing has quite the impact it feels it ought to. Despite this, worth reading.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989), I reviewed for SF Mistressworks – see here. The Goda War was, I think, the first book I read by Blakeney. I vaguely remember looking her up afterwards on The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which reccommended her The Children of Anthi / Requiem for Anthi duology. I hunted down copies of those two books, and they are indeed good. The Goda War, unfortunately, isn’t. She wrote a fourth novel, The Omcri Matrix, which I will no doubt reread and review for SF Mistressworks sometime.

Desert Governess, Phyllis Ellis (2000), is a slim autobiographical book about the one year spent in Saudi by the writer. Originally a dancer/actress, Ellis turned to TEFL as a career after the death of her husband. She spent a year in Hail, in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, as English teacher – not really a governess – to the son and two daughters of HRH Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the youngest son of ibn Saud. Ellis seems eager to learn and understand Arab/Muslim culture, but equally unwilling to accept some of its elements – resulting in incidents which caused offense and could have been avoided. She is homesick for much of the time and, unsurprisingly, finds the life too restricting. To some extent, Desert Governess provides an interesting insight into the lives of Saudi princesses – particularly the sections set in Jeddah. The writing is mostly acceptable, and there are some mistakes in the transliteration of the Arabic (though they might have been typos). The book is a quick easy read, spoiled somewhat by Ellis’ reluctance to either accept or respect the culture in which she found herself.

Resurrection Code, Lyda Morehouse (2011), is actually a prequel to Morehouse’s AngeLINK quartet, which I’ve not read. I think Amazon recommended it to me when I purchased Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (see here), and it looked sort of similar so I bought it. It’s an interesting mix of cyberpunk and, er, angels, set in a post-apocalyptic Cairo. Odd, but in a good way. I plan to write about it here soon-ish. Meanwhile, I plan to hunt down copies of the original AngeLINK books: Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node and Apocalypse Array..

City of Veils, Zoë Ferraris (2011), is her second crime novel set in Saudi, featuring the same two characters from her first, The Night of the Mi’raj: Nayir Sharqi, Palestinian desert guide, and Katya Hijazi, forensic scientist. I thought that first book interesting, though somewhat flawed – and I wasn’t convinced by some of the details. City of Veils is a much better book – perhaps because it has a larger cast and a much more satisfying central mystery (most of which proves to be a sub-plot, but never mind). A young woman’s body is found washed up on a Jeddah beach. She is later identified as Leila Nawar, a young film-maker who seemed determined to court controversy by filming subjects certain to offend the Saudi authorities. Meanwhile, Miriam Walker, an American, has returned to Jeddah after a month’s leave back home, and hours after she arrives home with her husband, he vanishes. Miriam doesn’t live on a camp, and can’t speak Arabic. Ferraris weaves the two incidents together into a mystery, one which drags in both Katya and Nayir. The characters seem better-drawn in this novel, but the plot does get wrapped a little two quickly. Still, I enjoyed it and I’ll read the next one when it’s published.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (2010), was July’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002), I found in a charity shop, though it’s a US paperback. I read and enjoyed Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, back in 2008, and Solitaire is a novel that had been much praised. I’m surprised I didn’t read it earlier. Because it is very good indeed. In a nearish-future in which Earth has finally acceded to a single global government, Ren ‘Jackal’ Segura is a Hope – i.e., a child born in the first second of the EarthGov era, and trained from birth to be a credit, ambassador and example to the new age. She works for Ko, the planet’s only nation-corporation, and so is under more pressure to succeed than other hopes. On a visit to Hong Kong, she inadvertently causes the deaths of a group of people – an elevator fails in the city’s tallest tower, killing all those in it – including a Chinese senator, and Jackal’s circle of friends or “web”. When a terrorist group claims responsibility for the sabotage, Jackal is arrested and charged. Her Hope status is revoked and, so that her parents are not fired by Ko, she does not contest the charges. She is put in experimental Virtual Reality solitary confinement – eight months real-time, eight years VR elapsed time. Somehow, while in VR solitary, she discovers how to edit her environment, and creates a simulation of her home on Ko’s sovereign island. So when she finishes her sentence and comes out of “prison”, she is less damaged psychologically than others who had served sentences in the same fashion. The title of the book refers to a bar Jackal discovers some weeks after her release, which caters to “solos” – i.e., those who have served VR solitary confinement sentences. And is the events, and the people, there which lead to the story’s resolution. Solitaire is beautifully-written – this is not the prose you expect to find in a genre heartland novel. There are a few hand-wavey moments here and there, but they’re minor and in no way spoil the story. Eskridge’s knowledge of motivational studies comes across as extremely authoratitive (I believe that’s her day-job). Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, even after a month of women-only writers my reading is only 32% female and 68% male. So I need to do more. From now on, I’m going to try and alternate with each book I read, though I’m not going to be obsessive about it.

Oh, and no watchings this time, I’m afraid. I’m saving them up for the next readings & watchings post.