On Holiday Reading

I’ve just come back from a trip to LA (on this, more anon) and I’m joyous about the fact I had two long plane journeys in which to read actual books.  The truth is, I’m finding it harder and harder to clear headspace for reading other people’s books when I’m writing my own. So being trapped on an aeroplane for the best part of two whole days was a treat. (Though I did manage to fit in some movies too – including the execrable Journey to the Center of the Earth which, um, I actually enjoyed.)

I’ve also recently had a week away in Cyprus, visiting my wife’s sister, and that too gave me ample opportunity to lose myself in books.  And in the course of those two reading jags, I’ve managed to work my way through some of the best genre fiction around.  These are books which, in my view, put genre writing up there with the best literary work.  These books are beautifully crafted, beautifully written, and combine great storytelling with wonderful characters and evocative prose that lingers in the mind’s ear. 

I’m excluding here the fun but not quite so good books I’ve read over the last few months.  But these are the best of the bunch. (There are two Stephen Kings here – I’m working my way through his collected works.)

First, and by no means least, the superlative Brazyl, by Ian McDonald.  This is an astonishing piece of alternative-reality writing, set in various futures, and relying brilliantly but subtly on the multiverse theory which is one of the possible ToEs surrounding quantum theory. The hard sf is in there, and is cogently explained at one point.  But the book is first and last an explosion of colour and life and character, evoking the real Brazil with astonishing detail, including a glossary of phrases, and weaving together disparate stories to create a seamless shocking whole.  John Jarrold advised me that this book is one of the best SF novels to be published in recent years – and dang, he was right.

‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King. It takes a writer of superlative confidence to start a novel’s title with an apostrophe; it refers of course to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, haunted by vampires, in a stunningly rich exploration of small town American life.  This predated Buffy by yoinks; it’s the author’s second novel, written when he was still in his 20s.  And despite some slightly hurried storytelling in the latter stages, it’s an astonishing achievement.  King ruefully admits that in his youthful arrogance he wanted to write a horror novel that had the texture and resonance and allegorical depth of the American classic Moby Dick; and (as a fan of the Melville) I think he actually succeeds.  The vampire story is scary as hell; but over and above that, the way King creates his small US town in painstaking and compelling detail is entirely marvellous. His characters are utterly real; his tone is finely judged; and he has the eerie knack of reaching out a hand and placing haunting images in the reader’s mind.

The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson.  This is one of the SF classics I’ve only recently got around to reading, from the author of I Am Legend.  It tells the story of a man who is shrinking – boy, these Golden Age writers didn’t mess around!  What it says in the title, it does.

I have fond memories of the film which was made of this – The Incredible Shrinking Man – but the book has its own genius.  It is a terrifying portrait of a man losing his manhood; it is a religious parable; and it is an exalting, inspiring story of how to fight adversity, in the form of despair, depression, and monster spiders.  Matheson’s prose has a jewel-like precision; and he wastes no time on unnecessary backdrop, but tells his story out of sequence and suspensefully, and conjures up characters who ache with feeling with the briefest of scenes. 

The Secret Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. This was the winner of the Hugo award for 2008.  It’s a piece of literary fiction which plays expertly with the well-worn SF trope of an alternative present based on a moment when history turned left, instead of right. In this version, the Jews were kicked out of Palestine in 1948, and were resettled in Alaska.  (This was a serious possibility in the 1940s; it’s just historical chance it didn’t happen that way.)  Chabon tells a shaggy dog detective story with chilling implications; he creates an astonishingly funny and enjoyable cast of characters; and most of all, he pulls off the amazing feat of making Yiddish the language of his characters, even though the book is written in English.  There are hilarious flights of linguistic madness, there is Jewish humour in abundance, and there is a surreal account of a world in which bits of string can be used to demarcate territory, in the form of eruvs, allowing Jews to observe the Sabbath even while technically outdoors. (This bit, bizarrely, is true.)

And finally, though I’m still three chapters away from the end, there’s  

Duma Key, again by Stephen King.  This is his latest novel, the work of an author in his 60s, at a time when authors are supposed to be getting lazy, stale and soft.  However, King is none of these things; the older man’s voice comes through, but the energy and audacity that were present in ‘Salem’s Lot are still present here.  It’s a really great story, scary and thought-provoking, based around the story of a man who loses his arm and then becomes a great painter in an evocative Florida location. 

As you’d expect, there are very scary sections; but the triumph of this book is its account of the psychology and pain of a man who has suffered a ghastly accident, when his vehicle is hit by a crane.  (In real life, King suffered an appalling car crash, which changed his outlook on life, but didn’t in any way diminish his zest or creative energy.) 

Every time I check my Good Reads site I discover that Jennifer Rardin and Fantasy Book Critic have notched up another stunning tally of books read.  I fear I am lagging badly by comparison; but hope I have made up for it by reading, in quite close sequence, some of the greatest SF/horror novels around. 

Now I need to start taking longer holidays, to read even more great books….

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