12/16/2011

Book recommendations

I don't often do an end-of-year recommendation-type thing, but what the hell. Here's a few things I read this year I think are seriously worth your time, regardless of whether or not they were actually published this year.

First up is 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. I don't normally go for collections of short stories, but I'd previously read Joe's first novel and enjoyed it, and besides, it was cheap on the Kindle. As is usually the case with collections these days, it took me a good long while to finish it, but it was worth the journey. Hill is clearly one of the best horror/weird fiction writers around, and employs a particularly lucid and clear form of writing that isn't overstated. The last - and possibly longest - story, Voluntary Committal, is probably the best, and reminded me of some of the stuff Jonathan Carroll writes. Plus, it genuinely creeped me out, and very few other writers have managed that (an honourable shout-out to a story in Carroll's collection The Panic Hand I can't remember the name of, and Jingling Geordie's Hole by Ian Watson, which I read in Interzone way back in the Eighties).

I finally, finally got around to rereading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver before moving on to the two massive, massive sequels, very nearly three thousand pages of tightly-written, twisty and (I believe) historically accurate fiction set around the Enlightenment and a work with an essentially science fictional heart. I won 't - can't - even begin to summarise the plot or what made it to me such essential, if demanding, reading, because that would take a ten thousand word essay all on its own. Sometime next year, I'm going to re-read Cryptonomicon which, although it was written first, is set chronologically after that three-book sequence. Now, I'm a huge Stephenson fan, and I loved his recent Reamde, but it wasn't quite in the same arena of awesomeness that his previous books, including Anathem, achieved. You can consider Reamde recommended, definitely, but if you haven't read him before, get something else by him first.

My hatred for poetry extends all the way back to school, when I had the stuff shoved down my unwilling throat by countless English teachers. Science fiction, fortunately, saved me from giving up reading entirely. There's even something about the word 'poetry' that makes me wince. Perhaps, then, the reason I like Charles Bukowski's stuff so much is that his poems read more like short stories rendered in very, very short lines. So when I came across his collection Love Is A Dog From Hell (and how can you resist a title like that, really?), I couldn't help but grab it. And it's definitely worth it. Download the sample from Amazon and see if I'm wrong.

George Friedman is the head of something called Stratfor, which employs geopolitics to make near-future estimates - like, one to two years ahead - of likely political and even technological developments for big businesses assessing investment or development opportunities. In other words, he's a futurist, and his book The Next 100 Years, while technically non-fiction, comes very close to science fiction in its latter chapters as he speculates on how the world might look a hundred years from now, and how it might get there. I've read reviews that suggest Friedman is too US-oriented, and that may be the case, but he makes what seem to be cogent arguments about who'll be calling the shots internationally a century from now. Whether or not you agree with him, it makes for compelling  and often surprising reading.

Max Brooks' World War Z is far, far more entertaining than it has any right to be, and I caught sight of some of the filming taking place this summer in George Square here in Glasgow. Normally I steer the hell clear of anything with 'zombies' in it, but this is a superb piece of work, with the emphasis much more on the social aftermath of an outbreak. Really, the zombies are just a shorthand for any kind of infection that can spread rapidly, and kill in droves. Whatever you might think this book is like, you'd be wrong.

Troy Parfitt's Why China Will Never Rule the World makes almost for a companion piece to the Friedman book in its analysis of why China's geography, politics, history and, most especially, the Confucian philosophy that still underpins much of the country's culture mean it may never become the major world power some have claimed it could. Parfitt is amongst those writers who believe China as a political entity is unlikely to survive the changes of the next few decades, and he draws both on rigorous research and the dozen or so years he lived in the Far East (slight disclaimer: I know the author, but I'd still recommend this regardless).

If you're a writer, I found Andrea Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks for Authors full of excellent suggestions and some surprising insights into the movie industry as well, from a former screenwriter turned bestselling novelist (and you'll learn why you should never see a movie with three or more writers listed in the credits).

A late addition, a book I only just finished, but stands out as one of the best sf novels of the past several years: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I know phrases like 'astonishing tour de force' are terribly cliched when applied in book reviews, but I honestly can't think of better words. It's astonishing, and a tour de force. There are quite a lot of reviews and articles out there about the book - which received a serious Hollywood offer, I believe, even before it was published - so if you don't believe me, google it and see. All I can say is, the book deserves all the plaudits it's been receiving. Go buy it. 
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