This has not been a great reading year for me – with the exception of a lot of research material of various kinds (pretty weird and obscure, on the whole!), I read relatively little fiction, and what I did read was either skewed comfort-wise, or still work-related to some extent. With these caveats, however:
Possibly my favourite book this year was Saad Z. Hossain’s Escape From Baghdad!, published in the US by Unnamed Press. It starts as a realist novel set in post-invasion Baghdad, and escalates into a madcap secret history involving immortals, the Fates, the Old Man of the Mountains and a climatic, bloody, and hilarious battle scene. A lot of comparisons have been made with Catch-22, but also I think works like Tim Powers’ oeuvre or the obscure but brilliant Jerusalem Poker. It’s a fantastic book, and deserves to be much better known than it currently seems to be. A bravura performance.
I was also touched by Sarah Lotz’s Pompidou Posse (actually the author’s first novel, previously only published in South Africa and now reissued in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton). It brings back a lot of memories for me as a 17 year old backpacker crashing at Shakespeare & Company in Paris – in the (autobiographical) novel, two English girls run away to Paris and live among the homeless. The ending is heart-breaking, but also, I think, strangely hopeful.
Another book I loved this year was Will Wiles’ The Way Inn, which is fantastic – it starts off as a hilarious send up of the convention industry and takes a 90 degree turn into Lovecraftian territory. I love the sort of book that does that and this is wonderfully well written, a novel about contemporary existence and its horrors. It’s another book, I think, that deserved more attention than it perhaps got.
I finally read Jim Thompson this year (The Killer Inside Me) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH, both of which have much to recommend them. And I caught up on the rest of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels (one of the early inspirations for A Man Lies Dreaming). I also read The Crying of Lot 49, re-read Norstrilia for an article I wrote about it, and managed to finally finish Chuck Palaniuk’s Pgymy. And I enjoyed Nick Mamatas’ forthcoming I am Providence, which is the sort of thing you’d love if you love murder-mysteries-set-in-literary-conventions, which is a sub-genre I adore (and have contributed my own efforts to in the past). On that note, too, I did enjoy Jason Sizemore’s For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher a great deal – less a structured narrative than a series of increasingly surreal anecdotes set in the world of science fiction small press publishing, the sort of thing that’s in turns very funny, quite scary, and often makes you question the sanity of everyone involved.
In fantasy, I loved Zen Cho’s debut, Sorcerer to the Crown, which combines a sort of Wodehousian attitude with a sharp post-colonial sensibility – it owes obvious debt to Susanna Clarke, and is purposefully lighter, but it is very much its own book and it’s both charming and very funny, while making some pointed observations on both Englishism and fantasy.
And I caught up with Robert Jackson’s Bennett’s books, which I love – it’s the sort of pulp fiction where “pulp” is very much a compliment, from the gorgeous King/Bradbury/Lovecraft mashup of American Elsewhere to the weird circus of The Troupe to secondary world fantasy City of Stairs, these are books that very much show off their influences while remaining distinctly their own, and written in an inimitable style. They’re just incredibly good fun.
Speaking of fun, Cassandra Khaw’s novella, Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, from Abaddon Books, is ostensibly set in their shared world of, err, “Gods & Monsters”, but it’s very much its own thing too, a high-octane fantasy and murder mystery featuring the titular chef, the ghost of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, the Greek Furies and much more beside. It’s got a near-perfect first chapter, and I’d love to see more in that world.