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Books 2021

Created/Modified: 2021-12-26/2021-12-30

In my review of what I read in 2020 I concluded:

I've found this year to be enormously restful, and even healing, although for the sake of all our lives I hope the vaccines now in the pipeline are as successful as preliminary reports indicate, and that next year when I'm writing this review I'll begin by saying, "I didn't read as much this year because I was involved in these other things..." Because while I enjoy my alone time, and find it deeply restful, and this year for me has been profoundly healing, I also find the hard--very hard--work of being sociable has its own rewards.

Oh well.

I've learned a lot this year, which is a topic for my general review post. But what have I read?

Lots. Last year I was just over 100 e-books, and this year it looks like 120, although I was a lot more aggressive than I usually am about not finishing stuff I don't like, and a significant fraction of the ones in my Calibre library are things I bought for my wife, whose taste does not overlap entirely with my own, and why should it?

For some reason I don't recall--probably just wanting a particular kind of escape from the realities of the pandemic--I bought "Ride the Star Winds", which is a late Golden Age romp written by Australian SF author A. Bertram Chandler (which is apparently not a pseudonym, though it ought to be). I would not recommend it to an audience of modern sensibilities.

Two or three major things loomed in the early part of the year. First, there were Abir Mukherjee's Sam Wyndam novels, which tell the story of a British policeman who flees misery at Home to find adventure in India in the immediate aftermath of the first world war. Mukherjee, as his name suggests, is a Scot, and his sympathetic view of the human condition and for the moral struggles of his characters is profoundly moving. Highly recommended.

Second, my dive into mid-20th-century pulp continued with a couple of Alistair McLean novels. I have to say, what story tellers could get away with in those days was quite something. Not in terms of the "problematic" elements, which I don't care about, but in terms of the "over-the-top-absurd" elements, which I do. Entertaining, but suspending my disbelief at times required steel cables lowered from a skyhook balloon.

Thirdly, Stephen King. I'm not a big horror fan, and while I'd read some King in the past, and found his book "On Writing" one of the most valuable works on writing I've encountered, I hadn't really dug into his full range. Later and Joyland were both real wakeup calls as to his power and scope, and were followed (later) by Duma Key and Billy Summers, as well as the one with the date for a title that's not ISO 8601 compliant so I'm not going to write it here.

King cares about his characters and the worlds they live in, and at his best he makes us feel that care. Although I also read the one about the dragons, which I didn't make it through. Fascinating stylistic experiment, but the cables snapped and my suspension of disbelief fell to Earth hard. It might even have cracked a bit on landing.

King is one of those writers who superficially might not seem to do much, but from his work on writing it's clear he's basically an improvisor (a "pantster" in the current lingo, doing it by the seat of his pants, as opposed to a "planner") and his books at their best read like perfectly constructed improv scenes where the improvisors all make just the optimal choices as to what should happen next to keep the audience enthralled. I've been working to imbue my own story-telling with some of the same spirit, which is not nearly as easy as King makes it look. At every moment we have a range of choices. Some result in more interesting stories than others. King is very, very good at finding ones that create fascinating results without seeming to break into a sweat. It's quite wonderful.

It's also fiction by, about, and for men, although I know a lot of women read it too. That's refreshing as well.

I read a moderate amount of Hard Case and similar noir, but I find I'm tiring of the genre. My wife started one of the Quarry books by Max Collins--which I quite enjoy when in the right mood--and asked after getting some ways into it, "Does this guy do anything but have sex and kill people?" "Not really. Genre-wise that's kind of what that style of 'men's fiction' is about." But with King, it's about a great deal more.

My wife did read and enjoy Max Collin's True Detective, which I also liked a lot. The seamless weaving of fictional action into the factual background is an incredible feat, and I felt like I'd been on walking tour of Chicago, and to some extent America, in the early 1930s. This is a world where my father was still a child, and no doubt listened to radio reports of criminal goings-on the distant cities of America. I'm looking forward to reading more in the series.

Last year I mentioned Mick Herron's Slough House books, which an English friend got me reading, and I've now read the lot and am eagerly awaiting the next. Jackson Lamb is a great character: larger than life in every sense, the anti-est of anti-heroes. The books do get extremely, egregiously, horrifically, violent at times, so not for the faint of heart, but if you can get past that they are a wonder of meticulously crafted story-telling set in the heart of modern Britain's intelligence establishment. Or possibly the colon.

I stumbled upon the first of the Bartimaeus books by Jonathon Stroud somewhere in paperback and finished the trilogy in e-book. Fun and well-realized magical world that is too similar to our own to be plausible but I'm not complaining about that at all. Belief was not difficult to suspend.

Charles McCarry's Miernick Dossier was an unexpected pleasure that I got based on a recommendation of some list of "best spy novels written by spies". It's a tale told in field reports, letters, memos, and so on, and while the comedy is entirely black it's an entertaining read that keeps you guessing to the end.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire was obviously-enough a book I'd enjoy that one of my offspring bought it for me for Christmas. He has good taste, and a good sense of what I enjoy (he's one of the few people who dare buy books for me.) As with the Bartimaeus books, the world-building is excellent, the stakes are high, and the story is complex and all too human.

Toward the latter half of the year I shifted gears a bit, maybe?

The Scavenger Door is the latest in the Finder Chronicles but Suzanne Palmer, and Shorefall the next book in Robert Jackson Bennett's The Founder's Trilogy, which is really very good. The moral dimensions of power are something that Bennett is deeply concerned with, particularly how technological power interacts with political and economic power. More about that in a bit.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik does a brilliant job of reinventing the "magical boarding school" story, and the main character is wonderfully contrary, refusing to bend to her destiny even a little bit. The second volume of the series is just out, and I'm looking forward to reading it a great deal.

A friend who works in the news business in the US has been talking about George McDonald's Fletch books for years, and I finally bought a couple. I've enjoyed them, but not so much as the Flynn books set in the same world (Flynn starts life as a character in the second Fletch story.)

In non-fiction I read a variety of stuff, include Lynn Bowen's Boss Whistle about coal mining on Vancouver Island, which I think I read in the '70s but was worth revisiting now that I'm living in the vicinity again. I also read John Oliphant's Brother XII, about a local con man who ran one of the first abusive New Age cults in the late '20s and early '30s in the islands just south of where I grew up. I've been using these in an experiment of my own that attempts to weave historical fact with outrageous fiction. We'll see if it works (and if it's saleable.)

I also read Christopher Robbins' The Ravens, about forward air controllers in the American's illegal war in Laos in the late '60s and early '70s, which is a compelling and human history of a small group of men trying to fight effectively with minimal tools and enormous courage. I didn't know much about the war in Laos prior to this, and the book provides enough history to put the work of the Ravens in context. Highly recommended.

Somewhere I stumbled upon The Winteringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley, and that led to the discovery that my wife has never read the Lord Peter Wimsy books, so Christmas was taken care of.

There's a smattering of other fiction and non-fiction that I'm no-doubt forgetting. A Harlan Coben I quite enjoyed. Some vintage Saberhagen. A few things on Canadian government, policing, and intelligence.

Sam Cooper's Wilful Blindness on how the Chinese Communist Party, organized crime, and corrupt politicians across the spectrum have colluded to make Canada the money-laundering capital of the world, to the great detriment of everyone. Cooper is a great reporter and one of the few forces holding the feet of our political class to the fire over this shameful situation. If the Cullen Inquiry is more than a whitewash it'll be largely because they know Cooper won't let them get away with it.

The pandemic has not made me any less jaded about politics, but I have to say I understand why my American friend admires Fletch: reporters--some reporters--are doing yeoman's service in turning over rocks and ferreting out facts that politicians and businesspeople don't want known. That's "some work of noble note", that is.

Finally: Robert Jackson Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy.

Oh my.

As I said above Bennett is deeply concerned with the nature and kinds of power, and the responsibilities of those who wield it, and the obstacles faced by anyone who thinks they're going to use it "for good". He is not a cynic, which is refreshing right out of the box, and neither is he a simpleton. No "capitalism is to blame" or similar totalizing cant for him. Human beings, doing human things, as human beings will do, all variously damaged, all still striving to be--in the context of the world Bennett has created--better than the gods.

Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is one of my absolute favourite characters in modern SF, whom I overlap sufficiently with in terms of life experience that there was a point where I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to go on reading. Think about that: I felt close enough to a deposed king from a peripheral nation on a fictional world where gods have lived and died and humans are struggling with the aftermath of their demise that I wasn't sure I could go on reading the story, because it touched me too deeply.

Don't ever tell me we are not all equally human, or that some things are reserved for one kind of people above all others. I get that out of respect we should in some cases keep our hands off particular traditions, but our aim should be to create a world where the depredations of the past no longer act as walls between us, and we can celebrate our individual uniqueness and universal humanity with mutual joy.

Sigrud reminds me a bit of Bothari, from Bujold's Vorkosigan novels: damaged, mourning, broken, half-insane, and still struggling to find some measure of good in the world. My kind of people.

Fiction needs voices like Bennett's. Literature needs voices like Bennett's. Humanity needs voices like Bennett's.

It was a very good year of reading, for me.

It's possible that 2022 will not be, as I spend more time focused on how we rebuild from the wreckage left to us by what is about to come.

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