Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2014
My choice for the year is a book with no character development and prose that could be fairly described as adequate, or perhaps functional. I know, I’ve sold you on it already! But it is a book I stayed up late to finish and one that has stuck with me, and its simplicity was part of what made it so good (with the important caveat that if you are looking for stylistic excellence or emotional subtlety, please look elsewhere so you do not become sad). The Martian (by Andy Weir) is a straightforward, optimistic adventure set in the near future. We are sending small manned missions to Mars, and one of these gets hammered by an unexpected and brutal dust storm. The mission aborts, but one man is left behind for dead – except, as you have guessed, he is not, and the book documents his efforts to stay alive with the abandoned equipment and material available to him long enough to be rescued. Although a few scenes are set back on Earth, almost all of the story is about the astronaut, Mark, surmounting one technical challenge after the next and remaining generally cheerful while doing so. No one with good luck ever had so much bad, as it is pretty much a series of one almost disaster after another, each time leaving Mark alive enough to puzzle his way through it. And he does figure things out, every time – as he doesn’t have the option of not doing so, which is perhaps the key psychological insight from this not psychologically oriented book. When watching a horror movie, you might yell (or think) “Don’t go down the stairs!” or other such beneficial advice – doesn’t usually work. Well, in The Martian, Mark grew potatoes to live on and ate one raw; I yelled at him, “Noooooooo don’t eat them raw! There’s higher caloric value in a cooked potato!” A few paragraphs later, he made the same basic observation and cooked his potatoes in the future. It’s that kind of book – there is plenty of thinking in it, and plenty of dreaming. It is just of the sort that has generally gone out of fashion in entertainment, and I did not realize how much I missed it until The Martian brought it back.
My Squawk of the Year is The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms by Ian Thornton. Spanning several decades, it has great characters, subtle humor, some historical fact and a sprinkle of magical realism. What’s not to love?
My squawk of the year goes to Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis. I first came across Ellis with his excellent début novel Crooked Little Vein, which I loved, so I was always going to pick up his next outing into warped hard-boiled noir. Gun Machine follows John Tallow, a frazzled New York cop who should have been on mandatory leave after his partner was gunned down by a shotgun-wielding nut-job. Following up on his partner's death, he uncovers a hidden cache of ritualistically-arranged guns, hundreds of them. Naturally, his colleagues hate him for creating this new massive case load for them; even moreso when they discover that many of the guns can be linked to unsolved murders going back decades. Tallow is given no choice but to take on the case, with the reluctant help of some unconventional forensic techs, and they find themselves caught in the undertow of a dark, twisted and occult side of Manhattan. Gun Machine is more tightly plotted than Crooked Little Vein, and considerably less absurd, but weird enough for me to like it very, very much.
There were a couple of very strong contenders which I had to disqualify - sparing me an uncomfortable decision.
It's looking unlikely I'll get Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk finished before the end of the year... Going by what I've read so far, it would have been near the top of my list. I'm about halfway through, but halfway is nowhere.
Another honourable mention should go to Stephen Volk's amazing novella, Whitstable. A project that could have turned into a bad joke was one of the most powerful and affecting pieces of fiction I've read in a while. , so...
My winner is Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside.
I was curious to note that it shared many attributes with Helen Macdonald's award-winning book; it's part natural history document, part memoir, part biographical journey, part philosophical inquiry. I would not have enjoyed making a decision between the two, if pressed, technicalities aside.
Coincidentally, both books share a fascination with the author TH White, a complex, tragic man, and they are both framed by a reaction to grief. Like Macdonald's, Hoare's book sparkles with lyrical power.
This is a heavy world and a heavy life at times, and with that in mind I'm tempted to call The Sea Inside whimsical. That would be a dreadful disservice. It gripped me and resonated with me, and I can't wait to see what Hoare does next.
I’ve mentioned in previous years the disjunction between the number of books I’m reading nowadays and the number I actually review, and the balance hasn’t changed. All I can say is that the ones I do feature on Booksquawk are either so enjoyable that I want to share the pleasure they give or (very, very infrequently) so bad that readers need to be warned to avoid them. Fortunately, there have been none of the latter in 2014 and yet I suspect that my choice of Squawk of the Year may raise some hackles and cause some people to disagree pretty violently (as only those with strong religious convictions can).
The book concerned is The Second Coming, by John Niven. Any book which makes me laugh is precious and this generates laughs of all sorts - from pretty basic ‘gags’ to delightful, intelligent observations and asides that draw on a wide cultural and religious framework. The central premiss establishes a clear example of what Koestler identified as the basis of laughter - the juxtaposition of conflicting or mutually exclusive sets of values. He called it bisociation. In this case, Heaven is populated by weed-smoking, laid-backed individuals, including God Himself, who express themselves in the broadest vernacular. Where they are, peace and love prevail. On earth, however, there’s mayhem, most of it specifically engendered by groups and individuals claiming to represent the Lord. God’s only commandment - ‘Be nice’ - is fragmented into laws and interpretations which lead people as far from His divine will as it’s possible to get and He has no option but to send Jesus down again to try to sort them out. The result is a brilliant, biting yet hilarious satire on what we’ve become and the extent of our self-righteousness and self-delusion. It has lots of intelligent messages to convey but, above all, it’s very, very funny.
A really poor year this one, with much touted books such as "Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore", "Vault" & "The Bone Clocks" all turning out to be really disappointing. My favourite book is no surprise as Ben Marcus has become my favourite living author and it's his "The Flame Alphabet".
“The speech of children has become toxic to adults. So much so it will kill them if exposure is maintained. Thus comes the drive to protect oneself from hearing and reading words and yet parents are desperate not to cast themselves away from their children. Love is mixed irrevocably with pain, even within the intimacy of marital sex a spoken word can harm one's spouse. The whole metaphorical conceit is a brilliant one and Marcus sustains it throughout by tweaking and finding new little insight s each time as to just what such a loss of language might entail.”