Noteworthy books read so far in 2016

It's been a while since I wrote a post about books I've read recently, and that I'd like to recommend (or, in one case, not recommend), so this is going to be a slightly longer post.

I've long been a fan of William Gibson's writing, but I started to lose interest from about the point he wrote Idoru. I've read several of his books that followed, including, most recently, Spook Country, but they felt terribly ephemeral and lacking in any real substance, certainly compared to his earlier, defining work. I'm aware those later books have numerous fans, but I had more or less reached a point where I thought it unlikely I would read him again.

I therefore only read his latest book, The Peripheral, on the recommendation of a friend who felt much the same way about Gibson's output over the last couple of decades. It's a return to science fiction, and somehow a return to the kind of truly gripping writing and world building with which I most associate William Gibson. If it's not yet quite my book of the year, it's certainly a close contender.

I've tried, and failed, on multiple occasions to read Thomas Pynchon, most recently Inherent Vice, which I picked up and abandoned partway through a couple of years ago. Curiously, it was catching the movie on Netflix that brought me back to the book and gave me a way "in". Once I heard actors portraying the characters, the voices in the book made sense in a way they hadn't before. I can't absolutely say, even now, whether or not I can recommend the book, though, because I came away from it with no clear sense of what Pynchon was trying to say, if anything. An addled, stoned detective in early 70s LA muddles his way through a muddled investigation littered with the broken and the eccentric...and then it ends. Pynchon is highly rated, particularly by writers I admire such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, so I came away from the experience still feeling as if I were missing something.

Something I didn't expect to get around to reading was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Like, probably, a fair few of my own readers, Heinlein was part of my introduction to science fiction. I read Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and a pile of short fiction pretty much from the moment I first got my hands on a library card.

Heinlein, unfortunately, doesn't read so well from an adult perspective. Farnham's Freehold proved, on rereading, to be astonishingly racist, and Glory Road is, simply, crude, childish and ultimately unreadable.

The only major Heinlein book I hadn't read back in my youth was Starship Troopers, and I bought it only because the ebook was on sale for a quid, and because as a purported classic of the field I felt I should read it at least once.

What you get is less a science fiction novel than, for the first half at least, a fairly straightforward story about military boot camp, with the addendum that real boot camps neither have powered suits that can have you leaping around like a super powered grasshopper, nor do they, to my knowledge, regularly whip their soldiers, or have to suffer endless monologues by barely-disguised authorial stand-ins about the horrors of democracy. It's a genuinely and unapologetically fascist piece of writing.

Once the action moved into space, I started skipping pages because there's nothing more boring than reading about people and insects shooting at each other. Is it a classic? Hell, no. Is it a good book? Not that either. But it proved at least a salient reminder that Heinlein was exactly as bonkers as I suspected.

By far my favourite book of the year, however, is a Jack Womack novel I first read way back in the early or mid-Nineties. I already reviewed it earlier this year, and in terms of quality of prose, of characterisation, and of nuance, it's the diametric opposite to juvenile trash like Starship Troopers. Read it, enjoy it, and thank me later.

Sharyn McCrumb's novel, rather than being science fiction, is instead a crime novel set around a science fiction novel: a famous novelist, notorious for his utter contempt for his audience, is brutally murdered at a con. There are endless walk-on parts for pretty much the worst kind of people you can meet at a convention. I've met a lot of terrific people at conventions, and they can be a huge amount of fun, but it would be remiss of me to deny that I'd also met some of the worst people in the world at conventions, and it's clear that McCrumb's knowledge of, and experience of, the world of conventions is both deep and extensive. Like Random Acts, I read this one originally some time ago, but more recently picked it up on Kindle when it was going cheap. Definitely recommended. 

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