Wednesday 22 November 2017

Bookmark Six

Having made a sort of peace with the state of the world (or, at the very least, having developed better coping mechanisms for dealing with the Ongoing Shitshow), I was able to read something that approached a decent number of books this year.

The grand total (excluding academic/work related stuff and comics, of which more below) is 57, of which 27 were by men and 30 by women. Twelve in translation and five non-fiction (or at least that purported to be). Max Gladstone accounted for a good chunk of those, as I went through the first five (and a bit) books of the Craft Sequence, while Cass Khaw and (in a shameless bit of bandwagon jumping) Kazuo Ishiguro also featured more than once. No multi-author anthologies this year, which has been light on short stories in general.

I am still reading comics, but writing about them has seemed less of a priority, somehow. For the sake of completeness, here's a (non-comprehensive) round up of this year's 'sequential art.'

The second volume of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda's Monstress didn't quite hit the Hugo-winning heights of awesomeness of the first volume. Thanks in part to the greater familiarity of the world and what seemed like a more linear plotline it didn't quite have the same breathtaking 'wow' factor. I mean it's still excellent, and one of the best things out there, and I suppose a bit of bedding in is only to be expected.

On which note, the fourth volume of Kutis Wiebe and (checks notes … Who is it now? …) Owen Gieni's Rat Queens finally came out. After the series lost its way a bit (both on the page and off), the writing's obviously gone under some 'back-to-basics' revision. Our favourite foul-mouthed mercenaries are back on familiar territory: in the town of Palisade, fighting monsters, completing quests, and wrecking their personal relationships. It's actually quite a jarring jump cut from the last TP—how Hannah escaped from her prison is never fully (or even partially) explained—and could, if you were feeling critical, be seen as a disappointing regression to safer territory. But then this whole series is essentially one big in-joke riffing on comfortable fantasy tropes, and when it works it still works very well.

The seventh TPs of both Saga and East of West continued to keep doing what they do to good effect, even if the most recent volume of the latter suffered from a lack of page time for Xiaolian and Crow. But then they could star in a spin-off series called The Continuing Adventures of Xiaolian and Crow and Absolutely No One Else and I'd probably still complain that they didn't feature enough. Volume 5 of The Wicked + The Divine was also a return to form, while the preceding entry lived up to its name (Rising Action) well enough, that came at something of a cost—too many things happening and not enough character development. This time around, Imperial Phase Part 1 gives us more of the good stuff, more personalities, more Persephone, and a pleasingly jarring early 21st Century fin de siècle vibe. Can’t wait for Phase II.

At this point I'm buying Lumberjanes largely to read with my sons. They both love it, but I've found the last couple of volumes have been a touch underwhelming; some of the series' original charm has been lost and it's taken on a slightly formulaic, almost literal, 'monster of the week' vibe. Molly also seems to be the only character the writers are actually interested in developing, which I could live with if it weren't for the simultaneous sidelining of Jo and Ripley and the flanderization of Mal, whose one-note hydrophobia is all she seems to bring the party these days. She’s gone from being arguably my favourite character to one who makes me wince every time she gets something to say.

The first TP of Copperhead seemed interesting enough, but not to the point where I'll be buying the later volumes as the come out. It's got a lot of tropes that I appreciate, but there's only so many ways you can remix them without feeling a little samey.  I finally found out what was going on in Lovecraft with the last two volumes of Locke and Key (as well as belatedly realising who Joe Hill’s father is [and Nick Harkaway’s, for that matter]). Nagata Kabi's My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness was utterly charming, while giving me plenty to chew over as someone who’s raising kids in Japan. I mean I was never in danger of pushing my kids to think that being a ‘salaried employee’ was the be all and end all, and hopefully I’ve a good few years to teach them how to actually talk to people, but as they grow up it’s scary to realise just how little control you have as a parent, and how much they absorb from the people around them. Anyway, it’s a good comic.

And speaking of ‘good’: Time for prizes! My BOOK OF THE YEAR is...

Don’t @ me. This is the reason I read essentially nothing over the summer. It’s not a book, obviously enough, but it is a superlative act of storytelling. Moreover, it’s not a story that could be told as effectively in any other medium, I don’t think. There’s been enough digital ink spilled on it elsewhere that I won’t labour the point here (if only because I’m trying to work through a longer piece about it myself), but it made me cry. I cried at a video game. While I do notice that I’m having generally more emotional reactions to media than I used to (mid-life crisis ahoy!), I’d not cried at a work of fiction since the end of His Dark Materials, half a lifetime ago. This was amplified by how the level of my emotional investment took me completely by surprise: I thought I was playing a fun, if slightly pretentious, JRPG hack n’ slash, only to suddenly find that I genuinely cared about these characters and their relationships and their trauma. Come the ending of Route E I honestly cheered out loud at an ellipsis. Phenomenal stuff.

For the more traditional among you who insist on things like pages and words, Yiyun Li’s DEAR FRIEND, FROM MY LIFE I WRITE TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE is an awkwardly titled memoir that is devastating in its emotional honesty, all delivered in Li’s incomparably unaffected prose. Almost equally powerful was Han Kang’s HUMAN ACTS, with honourable mentions to Samanta Schweblin’s FEVER DREAM, Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT, and Cassandra Khaw’s HAMMERS ON BONE. One of the more exciting things about the upcoming year is that I’ve got books from all those authors bar Schweblin on the tbr pile, so things are looking good for 2018.

Reading-wise at least—geopolitically we’re fucked.

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