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Sundry books of 2023

The New Year concert is on the telly, and I thought I'd follow the tradition of the last few years and run through the more salient reads of the past year. Out of the 81 books of the year, a significant portion are re-reads. Dorothy Sayers and Victoria Goddard are still my go-to faced with the horror that is world politics. I am still waiting for Cliopher Mdang to save us or Peter Wimsey to make sense of it all.

Lausgjengar -- Hayashi Fumiko
I will not pretend to deep expertise on Japanese literature, but I dare say it is a rarity to find one with such a clear intertextual relationship with Norwegian texts (in this case, Knut Hamsun's Sult (Hunger). I read it in a nynorsk translation, which I thought suited the work. I find it interesting how much my other reading dictates how a new book is read, perhaps particularly in a literature where I have only read moderately. This book made this very clear to me, as I could not help but set it in a relationship with The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, with its combination of events, love affairs, poetry and lists. I love the idea of taking a court-style literary form and mashing it up with the hardship of living hand to mouth, and bringing a female Japanese perspective to Hamsun's approach.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet -- Becky Chambers
A Closed and Common Orbit -- Becky Chambers
To Be Taught If Fortunate -- Becky Chambers
Record of a Spaceborn Few -- Becky Chambers
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within -- Becky Chambers

I had planned to read Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series for a while. I loved its emphasis on diversity as the most natural thing in the world and the way it raised ethical considerations through alternative paths for humanity, questions of what counts as sentience and who is granted personhood. I also liked how it discussed the problems of diverging from prescribed rules, and the creation of found family. It would be an interesting series to teach, I think. It is a very interesting combination of hard SF in the tendency to play around with actual science and thinking about the possibilities it opens up, while also keeping the "soft" SF perspective on people and societies. It is hard to avoid the comparison with Iain M. Banks, in part because I have been reading them concurrently, and they both explore anarchist future possibilities; but here there is no benevolent overwatch, and perhaps an even greater emphasis on how much culture, history and preference drives us, rather than pure rational and ethical questions.

Excession -- Iain M. Banks
I adore the Minds of Iain M. Banks. If AI were like that, I could approve; there is just not enough snark in the current crop. The humans are very much dispensable in this book, but the ships have my heart. This is rare -- I have never been one of the techno-enthusiastic hard SF readers -- and I suspect it is rather more due to the fact that here the technology has deep personality. Also, I would really quite like to be part of a group called the Interesting Times Gang at some point in my life. I could wax more poetical on the Naming of Minds, which is one of the strongest points of Banks' world, but I won't.

Varslerne: En fortelling om Giske-saken, seksuell trakassering og kulturen som tillater det -- Heidi Helene Sveen
It seems like a book I should have read, and so I did. It is an account of the many whistleblowing women whose experiences with a central Norwegian politician suggested either his complete lack of understanding of power dynamics, or his very acute understanding and serious abuse of power. The stories were not well handled by Norwegian media, and the book clearly sets out both the stakes and the misdirection by Giske himself and the Norwgian Labour Party. I liked how clear the book is on seeing these women as people, not just anonymous, disembodied problems. It should be read by anyone who has institutional or organisational power.

Moonglow -- Michael Chabon
I loved this book. Every time I read Chabon I resolve to read more Chabon. In part it is the matter-of-fact attitude to the extraordinary, with quietly competent people. And a knack for recounting heavy disagreement/pleading/dire situations as pleasant discussion of hypotheticals. I rarely like all characters in a book, but here I think I do (with the exception of von Braun -- and I am glad Uncle Rory loses an eye to a bow and arrow). They are all so wonderfully drawn, suggested along shadows, enveloped in circumstance. Wholly recommended.

Woman on the Edge of Time -- Marge Piercy
I have been meaning to read this for years, and I should have read it long ago. It is didactic, but not cloyingly so, and rather depressingly could have been written today which suggests a certain lack of progress. The focus on intersectional considerations feels very current, and while the device of a future in flux has been used a lot since, it still felt quite fresh here. The exploration of both gender and linguistic change in future utopias and dystopias were interesting, but I think the best part of the book is the present. It was hard to read, but so very clear in its depiction of power abuse, who commands the narrative, and the inability of privilege to take in the other perspective on the world, where a given definition of respectability does not equal truthfulness.

The Honjin Murders -- Yokomizo Seishi
Death on Gokumon Island -- Yokomizo Seishi

Japanese detective fiction has been a feature this year, and I am spacing out my reading of Yokomizo Seishi as only about four of his 70-odd books seem to have been translated. I have always liked the John Dickson Carr style of the apparently supernatural turned intelligible by the detective as an (often flawed) murder plot, and it is very interesting to read it in the context of post-war Japan. The Honjin Murders in particular is a very tightly plotted closed-room mystery, but both are interesting in the depiction of the tension between tradition and the break with it, and the way the recent history echoes in the plots.

The Case of the General's Thumb -- Andrey Kurkov
I read Kurkov's Death and the Penguin last year, and so picked this up when I came across it. Its satire is related, but perhaps less playful. For once I do not feel the urge to become a spy. It alternates between two storylines in a way that can feel jarring, but also highlights the leaf-in-the-windness of the characters, preventing a sense of natural developments. There are always puppet masters. In light of world events, it was interesting to see the thematisation of Russia's idea of Ukraine as just more Russia.

The House of Shattered Wings -- Aliette de Bodard
The House of Binding Thorns -- Aliette de Bodard
The House of Sundering Flames -- Aliette de Bodard

I came across this trilogy by accident, but the premise was so interesting I bought the whole at once: a world in which fallen angels have landed on Earth, precipitating a war at the beginning of the 20th century which has left Paris devastated, with some parallels to the world wars. I really like how de Bodard mixes mythologies, showing both the demonic character of colonialism and the infusion of the culture stolen into the subcurrents at the heart of the empire.

Titanium Noir -- Nick Harkaway
Harkaway is one of a handful of authors whose new books I will buy as soon as they come out, and they are always well worth reading. He has always had a strain of noir running through his writing (an element of the hard-boiled), as well as the SF mode, but here they combine more explicitly in a critique of billionaire capitalism cum detective story. My favourites remain The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, though.

Look to Windward -- Iain M. Banks
I always find the beginning of Culture novels hard because despite everything a part of me expects them to follow on from the last. Once I get a clear idea of the new characters and stakes, however, they are marvellous. I liked how this played on parallels of Minds and biological life, and the way it weaves a series of revenge plots is very impressive. It is a funny book (one could say, despite its subject matter), but it comes with some content warnings on suicidality. It was written in 2000, but it is oddly prescient about the post-9/11 world.

Gideon the Ninth -- Tamsyn Muir
Harrow the Ninth -- Tamsyn Muir
Nona the Ninth -- Tamsyn Muir

I am very much not a horror person, and I held off on this for a while over concerns it would be too spooky. While there are scary elements, however, these books are primarily fun, puncturing the ritual solemnity that is integral to so much goth/necro writing. The two first books were very good reads (and I would die for Palamedes Sextus and Camilla Hect), and while I found the third a little jarring, I like how the world keeps throwing up unexpectedness. There is a strong element of snark here that I appreciate.

A Culture of Conspiracy -- Michael Barkun
An utterly fascinating run-through of pre-Trump conspiracy cultures, which is perhaps especially interesting in light of the later QAnon developments, Covid and all the rest. It highlights the central belief that nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and that everything is interconnected as the central tenets, and from this new and interesting theories develop out of the old. I have always been fascinated by the dynamics of conspiracy theorising, all the more so as they have gained more and more political influence is later years, and it is interesting to see not only the early Trump cameos in this book, but also how what it describes so clearly can be seen to build towards QAnon and its relations.

Gender Queer: A Memoir -- Maia Kobabe
I read this as an alternative to flying to Florida and punching Ron DeSantis in the mouth (fear of flying, climate crisis...), and found it very interesting. The style reminds me a little of Alison Bechdel's autobiographical comics. While I am familiar with the issues at stake, it was interesting to read a bodied/specific story about coming into one's own identity as gender queer. It is fairly familiar in some respects -- the attempt to figure out what everyone else seems to understand is of course not limited to being nonbinary or trans, though probably intensified. I suppose the relatability of it and the gradual discovery that has the bigots shitting themselves. Also, of course, naked people. Then again, they do not seem to need a reason.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails -- Sarah Bakewell
My attitude to phenomenology has been shaped by poststructuralism, and is consequently somewhat sceptical. My attitude to Heidegger (shaped by his biography and half of Being and Time) is decidedly negative. I picked up the book because of the title, Tor's endorsement, and my experience of reading Grand Hotel Abyss a couple of years ago -- there is something to be said for the biographical light on philosophies, as what seems like a weird tangent when you approach them blind is so often a reaction to very concrete realities. That said, I am confirmed in my general attitude: Heidegger sucks; Sartre has promise, but fell down on the job; Levinas is lovely but obscure; de Beauvoir is brilliant but at times blind; Camus, likewise, but I like him; and I still don't quite get Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty, but I am intrigued.

Verden og buksene - et Gunvor Hofmo-fragment -- Kaja Schjerven Mollerin
Gunvor Hofmo is one of those poets I know of but have rarely read. This short biographical sketch paints the horror of the choice to remain in Oslo during the Nazi occupation, thereby losing the love of her life, the Jewish Ruth Maier, to Auschwitz. And the following encounters with a psychiatric system that thought the main concern should be to consider her sartorial choices as symptoms of mental health -- trouser or skirts. Have decided to read more Hofmo.

The Man in the Iron Mask -- Alexandre Dumas
Completed my first English read-through of the Musketeers this year, but it took its time because the more the book approaches the culmination of the plot at Vaux, the less I want to approach the inevitable end. Aramis has such faith in his plotting. I find my sympathy for Raoul has atrophied since I was a teenager, and the more I think about things, the more Aramis begins to approach the heroic in spite of everything.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire -- Judith Herrin
Sometimes the world becomes too much and all one wants to do is read a book about the history of Byzantium, and there it was. I have always felt suspicious of the light touches Byzantium (or the Eastern Roman Empire, as my educators insisted on calling it, in much more prosaic terms) received in my education, and I am now confirmed in my theory that this was a conspiracy against all sense, because not only is Byzantium delightfully bonkers in all sorts of new ways, it fills in a lot of gaps. While I found the references to the pre-Moscow Rus of the Viking age as "Russians" rather jarring in light of recent events, I loved how this book filled in some blanks and connected a number of individual facts that had been floating about my brain. I am utterly fascinated by the Secret History of Justinian, and find that things I have learnt in the study of the history of religion makes much more sense when tied to a political, cultural, and sometimes individual perspective. Also want to see all these places.

The Gift of Rain -- Tan Twan Eng
I had read The Gardens of Evening Mist and loved it, and while I found this book a little more jarring, it was well worth reading. I like how Eng keeps confronting the appealing aspects of Japanese culture with the brutality of its impact on the Malay peninsula, in particular. Part of my problem with the book was that it deals with a perversion of aikido, which meant I kept recognising and yet recoiling from it. It is the interesting to see the idea played out, though; but it did not help that there is a real Endo sensei who trained with Ueshiba, and the Endo-san of the book is not my Endo-san.

HMS Surprise -- Patrick O'Brian
The Mauritius Command -- Patrick O'Brian
Desolation Island -- Patrick O'Brian
The Fortune of War -- Patrick O'Brian
The Surgeon's Mate -- Patrick O'Brian

I had a summer of Patrick O'Brian, and I regret nothing. There is something about the pattern of these books that has had a tendency to demoralise me, as O'Brian has to take away the prize at the end of the previous book at the beginning of each new one in order to keep Jack Aubrey from immediately ascending to the Admiralty. But once I get going it is wonderfully engaging, even as I understand only about half of what takes place at sea. I am deeply invested in Stephen Maturin and his loves (the tortoise! the sloth! Jack! Diana!) and his troubles (torture, Diana, shipwreck, Diana again). And there is something about this glorious friendship that goes to my heart. Recommended to everyone.

Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes -- Rob Wilkins
Predictably, this is utterly delightful, deeply fascinating, and then harrowing. I love Pratchett, and I loved the account of his upbringing and the early SF conventions of the 60s, and the pictures of the young Pratchett before he became ... Pratchett. It is always interesting to trace people as you know them in these images (or, rather, not as you know them?). I also liked the emphasis on the concrete and heterogeneous, which seem to be key to the writers I love, and which unsurprisingly is key to Pratchett's life also outside of his books. The glimpses of other authors in orbit was also interesting (for example Gaiman as a young fanboy). I knew the final chapters would be hard, but they were harder than expected.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates -- Matsumoto Seicho
Another Japanese detective story, but this time more in the tradition of the American police procedural. It is again interesting to see how the recent war features in the circumstances of the murder, much as the method is all high-tech noveau: the threat of the return of history, the taint of the past, etc. Or perhaps that is a feature of all detective fiction, and I am only seeing it here because I have been thinking about the disconnect between what I see of Japanese culture and what the Japanese had just done. Come to think of it, the British (and the Americans, and the French) are the Mothers of historical guilt, so perhaps it should not be surprising as a feature of the genre.

Det blåøyde riket: norske tillitspatologier -- Nina Witoszek & Eva Joly
I have always admired Eva Joly, and I have also strongly felt that there is a marked disconnect between the trust we afford public figures (again and again) and those with fewer resources -- (the idea that it is ok for a minister to say "I did not know about my husband's investments, so it is all fine that my decisions on the national stage made us loads of money", say, while the structures of social welfare do not allow any leeway). So I am, basically, the choir to which this book is preaching. I could wish it went a little deeper into the matter -- it is all very "we are just asking questions" and I am a little tired of that approach.

Kalenderhistorier -- Bertolt Brecht
It has been an age since I read Brecht, and I picked this up because I was reminded of the poem "My Brother was a Pilot" as the Ukraine war developed. The combination of poetry and prose appeals to me, and I like how they appear to comment on each other. That said, the stories are what remain with me: I loved the Giordano Bruno and Socrates stories, and the grandmother who can finally live life for herself to the total confusion of her relatives. The poem of children in search of peace hit particularly hard as a child was dying every 15 minutes in Gaza as I read it.

Maskiner som tenker -- Inga Strümke
I like a particular style of non-fiction STEM writing, and this falls into that category. It is able to give an account of the phenomenon (here artificial intelligence) and go into some depth without getting too technical. I was a little surprised by a definition of sentience which would include plants, and the apparent assumption that the more common use of the term "bias" is a development of the data analysis term -- which seems unhistorical, but I learnt a lot about the differences between approaches and types of models. It all still seems like magic. I agree with her assessment that the lack of regulation is terrifying, and that death by radicalised white young men is more likely than death by killer robots (though I am not discounting that, either). I wish she had included Arendt in her analysis, though.

Dracula -- Bram Stoker
I have of course read Dracula many times before, but this year both Tor and I jumped on a DraculaDaily train which reads the text according to the dating of the daries, letters and newspaper clippings of which it consists, rather than in the sequence in which the "editor" has presented it. It was interesting both as a way of reading the segments of text more closely and in getting a feel for the time lapses of the action, but it was also very interesting to read it along with an online community. A fellow reader on Mastodon observed that there is a version of this story where Van Helsing is a cult-leader who slowly indoctrinates a group of people to a stage where they commit housebreaking, vandalism and eventual murder, and once you see it it is hard to unsee.

The Parisian -- or Al-Barisi -- Isabella Hammad
Interwar Palestine is not a neutral setting, and reading this book as the bombs rained over Gaza, and people kept being killed on the West Bank, did perhaps make this especially noticeable. I like the political charactes of the book, but what I really appreciate is the portrayal of normal human problems, desires, dramas, in a piece of history and a part of the world that has been denied that: When everything is politicised, depicting the human becomes radical, and counters the tendency of reduction of Palestinian life to a statistics of horror. And here I go looking for political commentary again.

The Fellowship of the Ring -- J. R. R. Tolkien
The Two Towers -- J. R. R. Tolkien
The Return of the King -- J. R. R. Tolkien

I read this first at 9 years old, and used to read these books more or less every year, but now it has been a while. It is interesting to see it all with fresh eyes. I still love Tom Bombadil (more and more), but have come to think it was a capital error for Elrond not to replace Pippin with Glorfindel (who as far as I know lacks a propensity for dropping rocks in random holes, and has fought a balrog before); Boromir's evil, I think, is clearly signalled in his horrifying love of a horn, and Galadriel's information security is objectively on par with Elrond's team selection skills. I am, as always confirmed in my love for Faramir (and my horror at Peter Jackson's ineptitude), and my appreciation for Eowyn's "Do what you will, but I will hinder it if I may" and the evergreen "no living man am I". I love Tolkien a little more every time I read it, much as the iffy sections have also become more visible over time. It is increasingly clear to me how Tolkien's war experiences must have informed some of the descriptions, especially as Frodo and Sam near Mordor that first time. If you remove the reference to hobbits, sections could come from any realist anti-war novel, with touches of modernism.

The Future of War: A History -- Lawrence Freedman
The idea of tracing the attempts to figure out what the future brings, and how they necessarily draw on the present in all the wrong ways, is something that appeals to me on a deep level, and I have previously tried to do it in the context of Science Fiction. Freedman combines the history of Future War fiction and the projections of general and policy-makers with the inevitable catastrophe. It makes for a fascinating, but deeply depressing read as you keep seeing more or less well-meaning people drive the world from one ditch to the other, killing civilians by the millions along the way. It is still instructive to see the origin of the stupidity, and perhaps especially so in 2023, with Russia stupidly stupiding along in Ukraine, and Israel deep in what appears to be an attempt at ethnic cleanising in Gaza.

Now for 2024...