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Bookworm 2014: The Disasters

Posted on | December 25, 2014 | No Comments

GoodreadsIt may seem that Goodreads has pretty much made these types of “year in review” posts pointless. You can list the books read in any one year by any one user, open them in table view, sort them by date or by rating or whatever other method  you prefer, and see what their top five or top ten or top however-many list looks like (FWIW, my 2014 review can be found here).

But unless that person is an avid Goodreads reviewer – and most of us are not, sticking simply to recording what we’ve read, perhaps dealing out the rather coarsely grained star-based ratings – the list will not tell the complete story. For example, I’ve marked 64 books as read during 2014 – a nice, round number. But among those, there are books that have not been rated for various reasons (e.g. rating the various versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh would have been kind of pointless), along with a fair number of those with one-star ratings, again, for various reasons.

Some of those are books I read and seriously disliked, like Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, an utterly pointless novel that makes a pointless plot even more pointless by ending with a “well, despite cosmic probabilities working against them, our protagonists, basically, got incredibly lucky and things worked out” ending, or Mark Anson’s Below Mercury, a highly rated and hyped hard-SF novel that just takes so fucking long to get started with the blindingly obvious plot that by the time it does, all the cardboard people feel like they are just going through the motions or a story that would have worked so much better as a fifty-page novella.

Others I have not actually completed, again, for various reasons. There’s the “I can see you trying really hard” brigade, where the author is making such an effort at being cool and edgy that the cogs of the writing machinery are showing through, such as with Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince, or Gareth L. Powell’s Ack-Ack Macaque. With Rajaniemi, this bothers me a lot, because I can see that there is an interesting story there, and there is definitely craft at work, but his hyperbaroque wordsoups make it too much effort to follow without an equivalent payback, much like a late 20th century French philosopher hiding lack of content behind unnecessarily complex made-up lingo. With Powell, on the other hand, I feel there is no great loss, for there was never much more in play beyond the half-drunken idea of a fighter pilot monkey.

Then there are the novels where the middlingly interesting characters keep plodding back and forth across a made-up narrative terrain slowly killing any initial interest in the story. The offenders here were Lucius Shepard with Green Eyes and David Edison with The Waking Engine, both books where I would gladly read the cliff notes version just to see what happens, but am unwilling to trudge through all those pages for the same result. These are, however, slightly ahead of books where no initial interest ever developed, where boredom with both plot and people prevented me from delving to any significant depth, such as Ania Ahlborn’s Seed or Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace.

A wholly separate category is reserved for books like The Land Across by Gene Wolfe, a poster-child (poster-old-man?) for artists who were once wildly original, creative and imaginative, but have in the meantime, well, continued doing the same old schtik while the world has moved on. In science fiction, arguably an inherently forward-looking genre, this is equal measures sad and unforgivable.

Now, having dumped on those who annoyed me this year, I can skip over my personal midlisters, those that were “just okay”, including some seriously (over)hyped works (Leckie’s Ancillary Justice failed to impress, Simmons’ The Abominable seriously annoyed, while Munro’s Too Much Happiness started strong and then became boringly repetitious), sidestep some obvious quality classics (Nabokov’s brilliant Pale Fire or Steinbeck’s exquisite Grapes of Wrath) and skip straight to recommendations of slightly less known books that seriously blew my socks off… or just stayed with me long after finishing them.

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  • Goodreads

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
    From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time
    The Ophiuchi Hotline
    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
    Green Eyes
    Crackpot Palace: Stories
    The Fractal Prince
    The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter

    Sebastian's favorite books »