Books read 2021

This is the first year I’ve actually kept a proper tally of the books I’ve read; as such, I’m not sure how representative (or not) it is of my usual reading habits.

(In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not that representative, given I started keeping track when my mishap at the end of January ensured a long stretch of time where sitting on my arse was pretty much the only thing I was capable of doing.)

Total number is 81 books read, plus two officially unfinished, with the latter category not including books which I am still reading slowly in small chunks (mostly academic and/or philosophical texts of one sort or another, with Ol’ Charlie Marx’s Volume 1 still in there for the third year running… what can I say, it’s an important book but it’s also a real slog) and very much intend to finish eventually, but rather including books which I started and decided I had no interest in or motivation for finishing.

Let’s do this by category, then. Links to writings by me on the book in question are linked, when they exist; a * in the column on the right indicates a re-read, two ** means many times re-read before and now read once again.

Graphic novels

The IncalJodorowsky & Moebius
Sex Criminals Vol 6Fraction & Zdarsky
Lucifer II: Father LuciferHolly Black et al.
Lucifer III: Blood in the StreetsHolly Black et al.
The Faust ActGillen & McKelvie
Ignition CityWarren Ellis
Captain SwingWarren Ellis
The Massive: Black PacificWood & Brown
The Massive: SubcontinentalWood & Brown
The Massive: LongshipWood & Brown
Lucifer: The Infernal ComedyWatters et al.
Lucifer: the Divine TragedyWatters et al.
Jack Staff: Everything Used To Be Black and WhitePaul Grist*

Already realising my record-keeping is flawed, because somehow I have neglected to list my re-read of the entire original run Mike Carey run of Lucifer, which I picked up in the big five-collected-volumes format over the course of the year; selah. What can I say? I’ve long had a soft spot for Gaiman’s Sandman universe, and Carey took Lucifer and made a great central character out of him. Hence my following on into the more recent additions to that sub-franchise; the Holly Black ones I could take or leave, but the very recent Watters ones are pretty good.

A bunch of these were picked up cheap at a loppis* over the summer; I doubt I would have bought the more marginal Ellis books otherwise (he’s tinkering with ideas in these that would go on to be refined and included in more thought-through and better-drawn projects) and I definitely wouldn’t have bothered with The Massive, which came across as a core conceit that never found a storyline worth it’s being pinned to. Meanwhile, The Incal is exactly as batshit weird as you’d expect, given the team behind it.

Novels

ShikastaDoris Lessing
On The BeachNeville Shute
Helliconia SpringBrian Aldiss**
Helliconia SummerBrian Aldiss**
Parable of the TalentsOctavia Butler
Helliconia WinterBrian Aldiss**
Long Live the Post Horn!Vigdis Hjorth
Drive your Plough Over the Bones of the DeadOlga Tokarczuk
Doors of SleepTim Pratt
The Moon and the OtherJohn Kessell
IceAnna Kavan
Castles Made of SandGwyneth Jones
The Many-Coloured LandJulian May**
The Golden TorcJulian May**
The Non Born KingJulian May**
The AdversaryJulian May**
OrlandoVirginia Woolf
Waste TideChen Qiufan
The Secret AgentJoseph Conrad
LanarkAlasdair Gray
Obelisk GateN K Jemisin
Hummingbird SalamanderJeff Vandermeer
ClimbersM John Harrison**
Proof of ConceptGwyneth Jones
Sarah CanaryKaren Joy Fowler
Mappa MundiJustina Robson
The Stone SkyN K Jemisin
Skyward InnAliya Whiteley
When The Sparrow FallsNeil Sharpson
Another NowYanis Varoufakis
DowndriftJohanna Drucker
The Master & MargaritaMikhail Bulgakov
The Baron in the TreesItalo Calvino

Bunch of comfort re-reads in there; Helliconia and May’s Saga of the Exiles are two worlds I return to every few years, and operate as something like yardsticks for my idea of what sf can do in terms of worldbuilding and sheer immersive scope. And Mike Harrison’s Climbers because, well, that’s just one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read, and it still gives me more—of itself, but also keys to Harrison’s other work—every time I go back.

A few oddities in there, too. Lessing’s Shikasta is pretty wild, a classic case of a literary writer clunkily reinventing the sfnal wheel, as well as a prime slice of late New Age crazy. The Hjorth is a novel about a PR flack who accidentally lands the job of supporting a campaign against the privatisation of the Norwegian postal service, and becomes (redeemingly) wrapped up in a minor victory for social democracy against the rising tide of neoliberalism. The Varoufakis barely qualifies as a novel, and would count as pretty bad sf if thus categorised, but it’s a pretty good utopia**, and perhaps even genuinely innovative (in a formal sense) within that field.

Fair bit of sf proper in there, as well. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is worth all the praise it garnered, and then some. (Also yes it’s clearly sf rather than fantasy, in the same way that Wolfe’s New Sun is sf rather than fantasy, don’t @ me.) Whitely’s Skyward Inn was perhaps the wrong book of hers for me to start with, because I found it irritatingly twee and provincial in its outlook, which I think is (kind of) the point, but which also just rubbed me up in totally the wrong way. (Something rather similar happened with the Sharpson, too, but for very different reasons.) Folk whose opinions I respect think a lot of Whitely’s stuff, so maybe I’ll try something else of hers. Qiufan, however, I shall happily avoid for the rest of my reading career; clunky crypto-transhumanist dreck that makes Rameez Naam look like Shakespeare.

Short fiction

Complete Short Stories Vol. 1J G Ballard*
The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter
Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban FuturesChristoph Rupprecht et al. (eds.)
LabyrinthsBorges*
“Bartleby the Scrivener”Herman Melville
DriftglassSamuel R Delany
The Birthday of the WorldUrsula K Le Guin
The Art of Space TravelNina Allan

Can’t believe it took me this long to get to Carter’s Bloody Chamber… nor for that matter to Le Guin’s collection of later short works, which are real gems, top-of-her-game stuff IMHO. Re-reading the early Ballard was a reminder that his particular obsessions (much like those of his characters) were established very early, as well as a reminder that between 1956 and 1964 he cranked out an astonishing number of stories, mostly for the skiffy markets, some few of which are astonishing (if a little dated), and some greater many of which are pretty obviously written to market with little sense of pleasure or engagement on Ballard’s own part. Maybe I’ll do Vol. 2 this year.

The solarpunk antho was an attempt to address my lack of knowledge about a fictional field I nonetheless cannot refrain from commenting upon; my main takeaways were a) that for all the aspirations of abandoning the cliches of cyberpunk against which solarpunk is supposedly set, editors aiming to collect it have trouble finding stories that actually do it, b) some of the ones that do it only achieve that end by running all the way into a twee green-tech-utopian polder and hoping to wait out the fall of civilisation, and c) that people with a significant number of gongs and plaudits in their author bio still send out (and sell!) some really poor writing. There’s three or four good stories in there, though.

The Allan was a singular reading experience (as I expected it might be), but as I read it for a review which is now a couple of months overdue, I’ll refrain from saying more…

Memoir / (auto)biography

Gospel of the EelsPatrick Svensson
In the Beginning There Were AnswersRoddy Woomble
… Believe in MagicHeavenly Records
Waiting For Another WarTrevor Ristow
H G Wells: a Literary LifeAdam Roberts
Borges & MeJay Parini
William S Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’RollCasey Rae

Roddy Woomble is the singer from Idlewild, in case you were wondering, and the book is a history of the band told from his POV. Could’ve done with a good structural edit, really, but I’d cheerfully walk through fire for that band anyway, and enjoyed the book nonetheless. The Ristow is the first of what’s promised to be a two-volume history of the Sisters of Mercy, written by a back-in-the-day fan whose day job is in academia; the topic doesn’t always stand up to the weight of the seriousness he brings to it, but I think I prefer it to the rather lighter approach that band biogs tend to involve.

The Parini is cute, and by its author’s admission probably as much fiction as biography; a little thin, but narrated with a verve that saw me race through the whole thing in an afternoon. The Svensson is part memoir, part enquiry into the enduring scientific mystery of eels, and partly a search for a sort of secular faith in a world where it’s hard to have faith in much at all, secularity very much included; an accessible insight into Sweden in the mid and late C20th, also.

Non-fiction

Spinoza: Practical philosophyGilles Deleuze
Time of the MagiciansWolfram Eilenberger
Children of Ash and ElmNeil Price
Never PureSteven Shapin
Green UtopiasLisa Garforth
Concise History of Swedenvarious
Tao Te ChingLao Tzu / Ursula Le Guin
Invoking HopePhillip Wegner
The Order of ThingsMichel Foucault
HumankindRutger Bregman
Society of the SpectacleGuy Debord*
Breaking Things At WorkGavin Mueller
World BrainH G Wells
Postcapitalist DesireMark Fisher / Matt Colquhoun
The Whale & the ReactorLangdon Winner
Automation and the Future of WorkAaron Benanav
Reading Like a WriterFrancine Prose*
Edges of the StateJohn Protevi
Sinews of War and TradeLaleh Khalili
The Anthropocene UnconsciousMark Bould

I could go on for hours about these ones… indeed I meant to write about almost all of them when I’d finished reading them, but writing bandwidth has been hard to come by this year, what with so much of it being taken up by writing done as part of my academic work. (It turns out that if you spend three or four hours writing for a salary during the day, it can be hard to make yourself come home and write more in your time off.)

Special mentions, though, for a few of them. Price’s Children of Ash and Elm, which is a brilliant history of the vikings as they saw themselves (as opposed to as they were seen by their contemporaries), told by one of the great authorities on viking archaeology; hard recommend, great book. Mark Bould’s Anthropocene Unconscious, meanwhile, looks for the Anthropocene in media which (so we’re continually told) totally ignores the Anthropocene; this approach of reading for an apparent absence bears some relation to Wegner’s advocacy of reading for (and as) utopia in Invoking Hope, but while Wegner’s finding utopia in an Adam Sandler movie was unexpected (to say the least), Bould’s opening his own book with the Sharknado movies and closing it with a reading of the Fast & Furious franchise as calls to comradeship in the teeth of the slow violence of petrocultural amnesia is simply glorious, cheeky and totally sincere at the same time.

Bregman’s Humankind has some good data and good intentions, but is rather let down by its author’s sincere and youthful third-wayism, and its complete absence of critique for the structural elephant in the room that he keeps bumping into every third page or so. Mueller’s book does a much better job of addressing the same issues, even though they’re not really the central aim of Mueller’s book. Meanwhile Benanav’s is a bone-dry but needful debunking of the “robots will take all the jobs!” discourse, as well as a solid critique of FALC, UBI and other such (usually, but not exclusively) leftish responses to said discourse.

And then there’s Foucault’s The Order of Things, which I’m tempted to count as three books for the purposes of keeping score, because it’s dense as all hell, and I’d have never gotten through it if not for the moral encouragement (a.k.a. sense of guilty obligation) of being part of a reading group that convened to tackle it…

Abandoned books

EileenOttessa Moshfegh
The Canterbury TalesChaucer

Started The Canterbury Tales because it was on the list of stuff I thought I should read at some point, and got about half way through before deciding “OK, I totally now get why this is such an important part of Eng Lit history, and some of it’s quite fun, but some of it is tedious and/or baffling to someone from outside of the cultural milieu in which it was written, and you know what, I have other things I want to read more than this”.

The Moshfegh was a reading-group pick which I abandoned maybe a third of the way through, on the basis that it was a depressing and miserable tale about a deeply unlikeable and (monstrously, if justifiably) self-pitying POV character. Having read around a bit about both book and author, I realise in hindsight that I may well have fallen into a sort of trap: apparently the unlikeability of Eileen can be seen as a metacommentary on our unforgiving cultural abjection of women, and our holding them to impossible standards. In which case, having given up on the book because it was so exhaustingly miserable and unlikeable, I must concede my complicity, I suppose? (I also thought it rather poorly written, for what it’s worth, which presumably compounds the sin on my part.) So I will try reading something else of Moshfegh’s by way of penitence; there’s gotta be something there to garner all that acclaim, and I shall cling to the hope that I’m not simply too much of a structurally conditioned misogynist to be able to get it.

#

So, yeah; that was the year that was. It seems childish to do the whole setting-targets thing on what is perhaps the last bastion of pure escapist pleasure I have in my life, but it also seems that’s not going to stop me–because I think I’ll take a swing at reading a hundred books or more in 2022.


* A loppis is basically a Swedish lawn-sale, though in a city where few people have a lawn, they often take place in the courtyards of apartment blocks.

** By this I mean Another Now is good at doing what a utopian fiction is meant to do, and not that I necessarily think that the utopia suggested by it is good.

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