I seem to be reading fewer and fewer new books each year. I don’t know if I’m growing more hypercritical as I get older or the titles being released are really not as good as they used to be. All I know is that I seem to spend more time re-reading items from my collection than reading new releases. This year was no exception, as I couldn’t even come up with a list of ten titles among those I reviewed to put on my list of favourite reads of 2011. However, the titles listed below are all ones that I will gladly keep to read again and again for the pleasure they brought and the ideas they generated.
River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: If you’ve given up hope of ever reading historical fiction that’s not merely a romance novel made respectable then River Of Smoke will be a welcome breath of fresh air. The second book of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy lands the reader smack in the middle of the British-run opium trade of the 1830s.
Set primarily within the foreigner’s enclave in Canton, China, it follows the fortunes of a disparate set of characters ranging from the mixed blood bastard offspring of British traders, Indian opium merchants, Chinese merchants, to the heads of British trading houses. The latter’s version of Manifest Destiny disguised as a belief in Free Trade makes the Monroe Doctrine look like a thing of restraint and reason. While his vivid descriptions of life at sea and on land bring the era to life, it’s Ghosh’s ability to recreate vernacular and dialect that gives his characters an extra dimension that allows them to almost leap off the page. This is an experience not to be missed.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Originally published in the 1930s and now reissued under the Penguin Classic imprint, Cold Comfort Farm is still one of the funniest books you’ll ever read. Gibbons pokes fun at literary conceits, the bored middle class and religion in equal measure. For those who’ve seen the BBC film adaptation, the book will delight, while the uninitiated are in for a treat. A very timely reminder of what satire sounds like and is capable of accomplishing.
The Conference Of The Birds bu Peter Sis: It’s not often you find a book that does as magnificent job of telling a story through words and art work as Sis has done in this work. An adaptation of a classical Persian poem, it will appeal to people of all ages. The illustrations will delight younger readers and the text, while straightforward, contains sufficient depths to keep adults thinking. One of the most beautiful books you’ll find on the shelves this year, or any year for that matter.
The Crippled God by Steven Erikson:The long-awaited, stunning, conclusion to Erikson’s 10-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series lives up to everything devoted readers have come to expect from the books. Human frailty, the hubris of immortals, bravery, spectacular battle scenes and the ability to recount great events and their cost on an individual level have been the hallmarks of Erikson’s writing and this volume is no exception. This series established a new benchmark against which all epic fantasy will be measured in the future.
One would think that after 10 books, each roughly 800 pages in length, an author might start to run out of steam and ideas. That wasn’t the case with either the series or its conclusion as we are held in thrall until the last page. Thankfully for anyone experiencing withdrawal from all things Malazan, Erikson’s partner in world creation, Ian C Esselemont still has two volumes left to contribute. So while one segment of the journey may be completed, the voyage is not quite over.
The Map Of Time by Felix J Palma: The mystery of this book is trying to figure our what is real and what isn’t. Told from a variety of perspectives, Palma has created a looking glass world where reality is dependant on who is doing the recounting. Yet even as various examples of time travel are revealed to be hoax after hoax, each subsequent adventure is described in such convincing detail by its narrator we can’t help but think maybe this one is for real. However, how are we to know as we are at the mercy of both our narrator and the author himself?
It’s a wonderful conundrum that stretches the boundaries of reality and keeps a reader guessing right to the last page. Palma has done a brilliant job of bringing late 19th-century London society to life, from the hissing of the gas lamps to the upper class’s fascination with all things mystical. A pleasure to read from beginning to end.
The White Luck Warrior by R Scott Bakker: The second book of The Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to The Prince of Nothing trilogy, continues the three main story lines begun in its predecessor. A rogue wizard seeks to find proof of the Aspect Emperor’s lack of divinity by finding his place of birth; the empress fights to keep the empire from toppling and the emperor himself is leading the combined armies of almost the entire world in what could be a doomed quest to prevent the second apocalypse.
There are no heroes in this book, no matter which side you might think you’re on; everybody’s motivations are suspect. Is it more than just jealousy that drives the wizard’s attempts to reveal the secrets of the emperor he feels betrayed him? What’s truly behind the emperor’s grand design of unifying all humanity and then marching their armies across the face of the earth? Can anything justify the iron rule the empire exercises in the name of “for the better good”?
As brilliant an exploration of the light and darkness humans are capable of as ever written, The White Luck Warrior, and the series, take us on a journey that only a few have dared to describe before, and does so with elegance and brutal reality. Not for the faint of heart, but brilliant.
Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg: Published barely a month after he died, this posthumous collection of Wannberg’s poetry offers readers a chance to experience what made him so special. A keen ear for the absurdities of the world combined with an eye that saw through the bullshit we’re fed on a daily basis and a heart that never stopped hoping for a better world formed the basis of a voice that never struck a false note. Whether raised in a stream of conscience rant against an injustice, ruminating on the strange minds of politicians or contemplating all things strange and wonderful concerning humanity, America, love and politics Wannberg’s perspective was as unique as it was refreshing.
Often humorous, always insightful and sometimes angry, his poems are the perfect antidote to the cynicism of most popular culture. People, not things or ideals, come first in Wannberg’s world, a lesson we could all stand to learn, no matter what side of the political fence we sit on.
Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight: While it might seem odd for a white American to write a book about why he adheres to a uniquely African American form of Islam, Michael Muhammad Knight has never let conventional wisdom stand in his way before. Unlike so many others who look to another’s culture for answers, Knight is completely aware of the paradox of a white man following the tenets of what is basically an African American self-empowerment movement.
Not only does he deal with the whole issue of race within this context in his usual brutally honest manner, he is also completely open about the contradictions implicit in a Muslim embracing a movement which tells its members that religion is a trap. Part history of African American Islam, part lesson in Islamic spirituality and part unstinting self examination, Why I Am A Five Percenter is an intelligent and thoughtful read. A classic case of truth being far more interesting than most fiction could ever hope to be.
Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen Mortensen: This collections of photography and poetry contains individual moments of insight and revelation that come together to form an overall impression of their subject matter. While his photographs capture moments in time and place, his poems delve deep beneath the surface to find everything that has gone into its creation. Winter is a time when the world lies dormant and on the surface all seems frozen near death. Yet beneath the ice and snow life continues to broil. It takes a special mind and eye to not only see through the permafrost but to fathom the secrets stored there and reveal the heart that continues to pump warm blood. Mortensen is more than up to the challenge and while the results are sometimes complex, they are always worth the effort required to appreciate.