Books 19 to 21, and Roundup

More books, probably the last of the year.

19. The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

A Jesuit expedition is sent to investigate radio signals from another world, an archetypal missionary situation which equally archetypally goes awry.

My problems with it are many. The structure — flashbacks framed by the interrogation of the surviving priest — seeks to add depth but often treads water and is riddled with annoying narrative devices in which the characters say cryptic and misleading things. Stripping away the framing device leaves a very linear story of a missionary expedition gone awry, a familiar tale re-presented using an SF device. The alien world is built around a reasonably nice Darwinian twist but is populated by characters who more closely resemble a D&D race than truly alien beings (perhaps because, in the way of Star Trek, they’re an allegory of human nature). The crew of the expedition are, in the manner of the Pequod, a characterful cross-section of humanity. They’re likeable, but they’re also cosy, a ‘found family’ that at times feels like The Waltons in space. Although the fate of the expedition is undeniably bleak, the story, the characters and the world-building feel overwhelmingly tidy.

The novel confronts the difficulties inherent in belief, and the disastrous ends to which good intentions can lead. But it also seems to imply that the chief struggle of humanity is to reconcile God’s unknowable intent with the suffering and the brutality of human nature. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, but I may be oversimplifying what are undoubtedly ambitious themes.

20. The Little Sister – Raymond Chandler

Another month, another Chandler, this time finding Marlowe mired in a seedy Hollywood underbelly and featuring yet another set of brittle women and desperate, world-weary chivalry. As usual there are about three endings, each more convoluted and less plausible than the last. I really enjoyed it once again.

21. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

The first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy, as previously read by everyone on the planet. I’d seen the film, which made for an odd reading experience since the book follows a similar story but in a different sequence and with much better narrative flow and world-building. It’s also darker than the film, although it’s surprising how much of the darkness survived into the movie and I’d have been very interested to see how the second film would have handled the very end of this novel. This is an incredibly readable, rich novel, and if the plotting is at times just a little too convenient and the infodumps a little too infodumpy than I’m willing to forgive it.

My books of 2009:

1. The Devil You Know – Mike Carey
2. Vicious Circle – Mike Carey
3. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
4. Air – Geoff Ryman
5. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman
6. Fairyland – Paul J McAuley
7. Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler
8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
9. The High Window – Raymond Chandler
10. The Lady in the Lake – Raymond Chandler
11. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
12. Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins
13. Dead Men’s Boots – Mike Carey
14. Sunshine – Robin McKinley
15. Bad Science – Ben Goldacre
16. The Carhullan Army – Sarah Hall
17. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown
18. The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
19. The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
20. The Little Sister – Raymond Chandler
21. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

So that’s 21 books this year vs. 9 last year. I set the bar low but I’m still pleased to have notched up more than twice as many as last year. I had a bit of a blip after The Little Sister in which I started two1 books2 which still languish unfinished on a shelf, which slowed my pace considerably.

My wife meanwhile notched up 38 books, vastly outstripping me as always and beating her tally of 35 last year.

My wife’s books of 2009:

1. Homicide – A Year On the Killing Streets – David Simon
2. The Devil You Know – Mike Carey
3. The Fade – Chris Wooding
4. The Sharing Knife: Beguilement – Lois McMaster Bujold
5. Black Man – Richard Morgan
6. In the Night Garden (The Orphan’s Tale) – Catherynne M. Valente
7. The Last Colony – John Scalzi
8. Whiskey and Water – Elizabeth Bear
9. The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold
10. The Execution Channel – Ken Macleod
11. Dust – Elizabeth Bear
12. The Heaven Tree – Edith Pargeter
13. The Green Branch – Edith Pargeter
14. The Scarlet Seed – Edith Pargeter
15. The Sharing Knife : Legacy – Lois McMaster Bujold
16. The Carhullan Army – Sarah Hall
17. The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
18. Before They are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie
19. Last Argument of Kings – Joe Abercrombie
20. Poison Study – Maria V. Snyder
21. The Summoner : Chronicles of the Necromancer – Gail Z. Martin
22. Magic Study – Maria V. Snyder
23. Flesh and Spirit – Carol Berg
24. Breath and Bone – Carol Berg
25. Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik
26. Fire Study – Maria V. Snyder
27. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr
28. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
29. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
30. Africa Zero – Neal Asher
31. Transformation – Carol Berg
32. Revelation – Carol Berg
33. Restoration – Carol Berg
34. The Quiet War – Paul McAuley
35. Pompeii – Robert Harris
36. Romanitas – Sophia McDougall
37. Bitterwood – James Maxley
38. Dragonforge – James Maxley

1 Apocalypse How by Daily Show writer Rob Kutner, initially a very funny take on surviving the post-apocaypse, but one where the law of diminishing returns sets in very quickly.

2 Who Wrote the New Testament by Burton L Mack., a scholarly, secular attempt to reconstruct the actual beginnings of early Christian belief through literary and historical analysis, but one that for me feels nearly as much of a conjectural house of cards as the religion itself.

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