Favourite books read in 2013

Rabbit

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom novels (John Updike, 1960-2000)

I found reading Rabbit, Run (1960) a revelation. Its third-person, present-tense point of view lends the story an immediacy, but that would be nothing without Updike’s immaculate observational powers. That vast sections of the novel feature nothing more dramatic than Harry driving around in the dark, yet are still gripping, speaks volumes. While I found the switch to Janice’s point of view the least satisfying element, stylistically, the narrative bombshell dropped still makes me choke.

Reading a novel that you fully connect with is wonderful. Discovering subsequently that you have the ability to follow the same characters over forty years at decade-long intervals… that’s a rare treat. Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2000) each cover subtly different aspects of changing American culture and, more importantly, of the psyche of the average American male. Taken as a complete work, they are as perfect a novel as I think I’m ever likely to read.

 

The-Martian-ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950)

This ‘half-cousin to a novel’ (Bradbury’s own words) comprises 28 loosely connected stories. Most of them had been published previously in the late Forties in various SF magazines. In collecting them here, Bradbury traces connecting lines between stories and recurring characters. The effect is a disorienting series of snapshots that nevertheless builds up a far more complete vision of the future than a more straightforward novel.

And what a vision! At times, Bradbury’s prose can be staggeringly beautiful. For example, from ‘The Locusts’: The rockets set the bony meadows afire, turned rock to lava, turned wood to charcoal, transmitted water to steam, made sand and silica into green glass which lay like shattered mirrors reflecting the invasion, all about. Bradbury’s Mars, modelled in the image of the memories of homesick astronauts, tells us far more about nostalgia for one’s childhood than about the Red Planet.

At heart, my favourite science fiction has little to do with science. I may have only read it for the first time this year, but The Martian Chronicles is my favourite science fiction novel.

 

Other EyesOther Days, Other Eyes (Bob Shaw, 1972)

A down-at-heel scientist accidentally creates glass that holds its image for years. Inventions, breakthroughs and problems ensue.

I read this in a couple of sittings, amazed at how much mileage Bob Shaw gets from a simple, hypothetical invention. The eventual use of ‘slow glass’ as a surveillance tool prefigures issues topical today: CCTV and Google’s Streetview and Glass projects. Throughout the novel, interspersed sections paint vignettes of different aspects of life that have been irrevocably changed by the invention of slow glass, many of them heartbreaking.

While the main plot may wrap up a little too quickly, and the love interest is under-developed, Shaw’s novel dwells on the human resonances of an important breakthrough. I’ll be searching out more of his novels in 2014.

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