2nd of January, 2005

 

 

Cat Eldridge here. Every year, in early December before the season overwhelms everyone, Green Man invites a goodly number of folks to gather in the Robert Graves Reading Room to say what they think were the best books and music of this year. Their choices need not be new to this year, but can be anything which they first encountered this year. More or less. Some of our guests were quite loquacious with their opinions, some were content with but a choice or two as they were busy chatting, drinking, and making merry! A spread worth of the feast in Jennifer Stevenson's 'Solstice' tale was put on for the assembled guests, and the drinks included a keg each of Kulmbacher Eisboch, Dragons Breath XXX Stout, Young's Double Chocolate Ale, and Ryhope Wood Hard Cider, all of which proved quite popular among the tipplers. The rest availed themselves of myriad sparkling juices and teas.

(Staff choices for the The Very Best of 2004 are taking a little longer to compile as they seem to be off partying elsewhere, but will be up around Candlemas if Father Snow allows.)

Now let's see what they had to say...

Kage Baker -- Holly Black -- Shanne Bradley -- Nick Burbridge -- Ellen Datlow --
Elizabeth Hand -- Jim Hetley -- Kij Johnson -- Gwyneth Jones -- Ellen Kushner -- Drew Miller -- Phil Odgers --
Josepha Sherman -- Jennifer Stevenson -- James Stoddard -- Charles Vess -- Will Shetterly

Kage Baker says that her 'reading opportunities are limited, as a rule. However, there are writers for whom I'll steal a whole evening out of my writing time to read their latest cover to cover. Terry Pratchett has become one of these. His Going Postal was trenchant, darkly funny, excellent; his third YA, A Hat Full of Sky, made me wonder whether anyone else has noticed that his kids' books are even better than the stuff he cranks out for adults. We poor old creatures need a laugh now and then, and Pratchett obliges us; but he's doing some serious teaching in life values for the young. Another writer on my turn-the-phone-off list is relative newcomer Andrew Fox, whose The Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of the Fat White Vampire I read this year. Watch this guy; his regional landscape and portraits rival some of Mark Twain's best, and he has the same eye for human folly without the bitterness. Plus his vampire slob Jules Duchon is a welcome antidote to you-know-who. For music -- in 2004 I encountered a nice compilation from the Jolly Rogers, their Pirate Gold CD. Haaaaar, maties! Two movie soundtracks also made my best-of list: the superb Triplets of Belleville and one from my very favorite film composer, James Newton Howard: his exhilarating score for Peter Pan. Just now I'm listening to a CD by a quartet called Bangers and Mash, Breakfast at Fezziwig's. Perfectly lovely Victorian dance music. Just the thing by which to write time-travel stories...

Holly Black has a confession: 'This was the year where I didn't do nearly as much reading as I wanted to (although I see I said that last year -- this year I mean it!), but some books stood out for me. They are mostly YA because that happens to be what I happened to read a lot of: The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint, So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld, An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton, A Fast and Brutal Wing by Kathleen Johnson, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (which was, I think, from last year, but the new one -- Predator's Gold--is out now, so I'm going to count it). I also loved Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling's Faerie Reelanthology, which doesn't seem right to say because I'm in it, but doesn't seem right not to say because there are so many great stories inside. I know I'm forgetting lots of things, but there it is.'

Shanne Bradley, musician with Shane MacGowan in the Nipple Erectors, a London punk band when punk really meant something, noted she was going to see The Pogues at Brixton Academy play their last Christmas show and said 'I rarely find a book that can hold my attention all the way through these daze. The exceptional book for me this year was a biography, -- Hildegard von Bingen -- The Woman of her Ageby Fiona Maddocks published by Review in 2002. Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century abbess, saint, religious leader, visionary poet, naturalist and writer of medical treatises is probably the first known female composer. Here are two quotes from chapter 12, Harp of God -- 'Then in the above mentioned vision I also composed and sang chant with melody, to the praise of God and his saints, though I had never studied human chants and I did not know how to tell the neumes (notes) by myself.' (Hildegard von Bingen in Guibert's revisions to the Vita) and 'Unless you believe in divine revelations, what I'm saying will sound like nonsense, but I believe that when God created the world, he created everything, so music is something that already exists. You just have to be very still and hear it. Plato believed that was the case. I'm not being over pious if I say to God 'Guise me, help me' It's a kind of prayer, so therefore writing music is a kind of prayer.' (Sir John Tavener, composer interviewed 2000) I love Hildegard's music. The book was a real eye opener into the life of a unusual and strong 12th century woman given away by her parents as a small girl, to monastery.' On the matter of music, her choices for best of the year are ' The Angelicana CD by Liza Carthy especially 'Worcester City' and 'The pretty Ploughboy. English Folk music and songs with the contemporary twist and incredible musical sensitivity of Liza on vocals, violin, piano.' On cassette, 'Jormana is a traditional Bedouin musician from the Tunisian Sahara. Sorry can't read the title of the tape its in Arabic. This was selected for me by my Touareg friend Sadok Nbika who plays tambour most nights in the desert. And, bless her, she remembers what records are as a vinyl single, 'Torture' by Torcha Shed made her list: 'The newest vinyl single in my collection for many a year kindly sent to me by Peter. Don't care who sings on it -- Gripping! Gets the blood stirred up... Peter is a brilliant punk archivist and writer who runs a brilliant Web site that developed from his zine Nihilism on the prowl.

If you're in the UK, she's notes she's just been 'interviewed about my early punk experiences- on TV Documentary for BBC3 called Jonathan Ross Presents 1-2 FU' The program has a Web site here.

Bops Babes Booze & Bovver has been issued on CD for the first time ever, the complete studio recordings of what was a legendary punk outfit!

Nick Burbridge, who I'm interviewing shortly, the genius behind McDermott's, one of the best angry Irish folk bands ever, has two picks. For best book that he read this past year, it's The Asylum Dance by John Burnside, published by Cape Poetry; for best music, it's Sarum Chant by The Tallis Scholars on the Gimell label.

Ellen Datlow, Fiction Editor of Scifiction, notes ' I can name some collections that have impressed me so far (although I'm not done reading by a long shot): Elvisland by John Farris (Babbage Press) is the second collection by the author of such horror novels as The Fury, All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, and Son of the Endless Night, and the classic 50s sex and high school novel Harrison High. Elvisland has thirteen stories, four of them original to the collection. One is reprinted herein.

A Hazy Shade of Winter by Simon Bestwick (Ash-Tree Press) is an excellent first collection of supernatural stories that's going to make a splash come award time. Nine of the fourteen stories are original to the collection and most of them are terrific. Joel Lane provides the introduction. The ghoulish jacket art is by Paul Lowe.

The Machinery of Night by Douglas Clegg (Cemetery Dance) contains almost 250,000 words of Clegg's short fiction, including the novella Purity and a harrowing, stand-alone prequel to his novel, The Hour Before Dark. Thirteen of the stories made up the paperback collection, The Nightmare Chronicles. Ten poems, vignettes, and stories are original to the collection.

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin, Australia) is a marvelous debut collection that dances gracefully between the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Very Australian in language and tone, Lanagan is a writer to watch. One of the stories 'Singing my Sister Down' is included herein.

The few novels I've read and really enjoyed: Dead Lines by Greg Bear (Ballantine) is a terrific novel about a maker of porn films whose adolescent daughter was murdered by a serial killer a couple of years before the book opens. He is approached by a young, energetic businessman who is hoping to finagle some investment funds into a new type of phone called the trans. There are some genuinely creepy bits.

Iron Council by China Miéville (Del Rey/Ballantine Books) is about revolution and mythmaking. A rich industrialist dreams of building a great railroad to connect New Crobuzon to the rest of the land. The workers, made up of a motley of races, volunteers, conscripts, New Crobuzon, the city/state in which Miéville's second novel, Perdido Street Station took place. The story took awhile to get into this reader's bones the way PSS and The Scar did but it does build and there are dazzling moments of beautiful and shocking images.

Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas (Grove Press) is a terrific story about a beautiful young photographer who takes home a troll cub being abused by a gang of vicious teenagers. It's a quick read and has a lot of troll lore. Published in the UK in 2003 under the title Not Before Sundown.

Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books) is an excellent first novel that combines the beats and their experiences on the road with the Cthulhu mythos. Imagine that the Elder Gods are taking over America, city by city and only alcoholic emotional wreck Jack Kerouac, his junkie friend Bill Burroughs, and Neal Cassady are between them and human annihilation. It's a crazy idea and it works by the sheer force of will and by the marvelous ability of Mamatas to capture the voices of the beat trio (with a guest appearance by Allen Ginsberg.).

Liz Hand comments 'Your CDs and chocolate arrived -- thanks! The music looks great -- I tend to buy CDs slowly; I don't download stuff, and rely heavily on people sending me music or else hearing good stuff on our local community radio station, WERU (a real godsend, and one of the best stations in the country for alternative music). So i really appreciate the CDs you sent. A few of them I've heard on WERU -- Tim Sullican, Natalie McMaster -- so it will be good to listen to them more deeply. I usually and deliberately wait a few months before really getting a CD, to see if it withstands the test of time, so a lot of what I bought this year actually came out in 2003. But these are the CDs I either purchased or found myself actively seeking out on the radio. The Steve Earle I can't bear to listen to now, as it's so associated with the election. Likewise the Old Crow Medicine Show album got such heavy airplay I'm kind of burned out on it, but I think it holds up pretty well. The Wilco album A Ghost is Born I liked, but not enough to buy it (yet); one song in particular I loved, but it didn't grab me as much as Summerteeth (my favorite) or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

As for books -- I must be getting old and cranky. Very few new novels interest me, and off the top of my head I couldn't recall much that I loved that was new. There were several overhyped books that I actively disliked, but I'll bite my tongue for the nonce about them. The Crowley collection was long overdue and, despite the lack of "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines," is a cornerstone book. Tijuana Straits is a return to form for Kem Nunn, author of the cult classic Tapping the Source. The Shepard I thought was his strongest novel in some years. Leslie What's book was funny and charming and deserved a much larger readership, and I hope maybe someday it finds it.

My favorite book of the year, though, was probably Eileen Warburton's biography of John Fowles. An immensely readable work on an author whose oeuvre seems to have fallen out of favor. I think the wheel will turn and Fowles will be reevaluated at some point, but for now he's rather sadly neglected. Anyway, the biography is great and very entertaining reading.

Happy New Year -- hope it's a better one for all of us.'

She remembered something else later in the evening" 'One more book: The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards, edited by Monte Beauchamp, on Fantagraphics. Beautifully reproduced artwork from 19th/early 20th century Austrian, German, and Czech postcards featuring the diabolical Krampus, St. Nicholas's demonic sidekick. Perverse and a nice, dark, folkloric alternative to Christmas kitsch.'

Jim Hetley, author of two of my favorite novels, The Summer Country and The Winter Oak, lives in Bangor, Maine where the National Folk Festival has been held for the past three years, hence his comment 'I think my favorite music for the year would have to be the National Folk Festival. Yeah, I know -- readers can't go out and buy it. But three days solid, five stages, live music outdoors in good weather (not great -- too hot), and you couldn't beat the price.' But he admits that his choice for 'best book' is a hard one: 'Other than mine, of course, which is the bestest in the whole damn bookstore. I'm going to say The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.'

Kij Johnson, whose brilliant novels Fox Woman and Fudoki will be reviewed soon by Maria Nutick, has been incredibly busy working on a new book. She says 'I haven't read a lot of fiction this year, but one of my favorites is something I'm reading right now, a British mystery very much a la Oscar Wilde, called The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss. Other recently read delights: the SF satire Jennifer Government by Max Barry; Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe; and Alexander McCall Smith's charming No. 1. Ladies Detective Agency books.


Gwyneth Jones, who had two excellent novels published this past year, said 'My best music of 2004 has been classical piano. We went to see Ronald Smith, one of the greatest modern pianists, in May. He was electrifying, and glorious. I passionately recommend his CDs, especially Ronald Smith plays Liszt; the Chopin Etudes, or Alkan's Piano Music. Also, my son discovered Queen, became besotted with their music and that's been a revelation too. I never reckoned them at the time, but Brian May is extraordinary, and Freddie Mercury... what a great musician, great songwriter, under all that camp.'

For best non-fiction, she says 'Four Sisters of Hofei, Annping Chin (Bloomsbury). In 1911 there was a revolution in China, the empire fell, a republic was established. The four Chiang sisters were born between 1907 and 1914, of a gentry family. They were all still alive when Annping Chin compiled this memoir. It's absolutely fascinating, and moving, most of all because it's the story of a China the world has forgotten, a might-have-been completely eclipsed by the second, 1949 revolution. Yes, there were warlords and constant upheaval, but there was more to Republican China than Marlene Dietrich looking sultry as Shanghai Lily. There was a culture in ferment, and four intelligent young women lived their own lives, fought their own battles, became liberated and daring, just the way things were happening elsewhere.

Chateaubriand, Memoires de l'Outre-Tombe (editions Garnier). I have Farah Mendlesohn to thank for this. I read Chateaubriand's two famous novels, Atala, and Rene, long ago, and always promised myself I'd tackle his lengthy memoirs one day. In July this year Farah and her husband Edward James came for a visit, we took them to Lewes, our picturesque county town, and advised them to go mad in the secondhand bookshops for which Lewes is famous. So... I was the one who went mad, and bought the whole six volumes of mon ami Chateaubriand, in French. Frankly, in places it's debatable whether this is fiction or non-fiction (Francois had a vivid imagination, and never lets the facts get in the way...) But it's terrific, from his childhood in Brittany with his terrifying father prowling the castle of Combourg -his father was a former slave runner and no-kidding pirate, to his experiences in Paris at the point where inspiration and idealism gave way to the bloody Terror. At which point Francois decided he would go and explore the forests of the Irquois, and see if he could find the North West Passage. Did he have any financial backing? No. Did he have a clue what he was up to? No! Is it fun to read about his misadventures? Definitely. See Francois visit George Washington, and nearly fall into Niagara Falls... And all that in volume one, combined with the most startlingly truthful descriptions of a writer's inner life. This is going to keep me going for a long time.'

For best fiction, 'Either I've been working too flat out, and reading only research sources, or I just haven't struck anything really memorable this year. But I thoroughly enjoyed Liz Williams' Nine Layers Of Sky, (Tor); a cold Europe scientific romance. The Utopian alternative reality is a little unsatisfying, as such things inherently are, but the real world story is great,  full of very high-class local colour, atmosphere, and human super-human characters... And Henry Williamson's Tarka The Otter is shockingly good. Superb nature writing, savage realism, awful tragedy. The things people used to reckon were suitable for children!'

Ellen Kushner, who wrote not one but two of the best Regency style comedy of manner novels ever written, Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings, has some interesting comments: 'I'll wolf down anything Kage Baker writes. I loved her The Anvil of the World, which is high fantasy with a twist -- she says it was influenced by Thorne Smith, and indeed, if you think wizards & Dark Lords drinking martinis, you'll get some of its charms. Earth Logic by Laurie J. Marks is an even stronger book than the first in her awe-inspiring Elemental Logic series, especially for those of us fond of myth as well as magic, since it's infused with stories of a trickster Raven that are very familiar in tone yet startlingly original in content.

I've been spending some time with harpist Aine Minogue, a delightful person and wonderful musician. I recommend her well-researched album of faery music, The Twilight Realm, which is backed up by terrific supporting material on her Web site.

I'm working on my next novel (sequel to Swordspoint, prequel to The Fall of the Kings), and have found that nothing works better as inspirational background music than Paul O'Dette's fine fierce recording of mad mannerist lutenist 'Il Tedesco' Kapsberger - O'Dette calls him 'a Baroque composer in the true sense of the word (barocco: a pearl distorted).''

Drew Miller of Boiled in Lead fame offered up the list he gave to fRoots. For his choices for new albums of the year, he went with Antibalas' Who Is This America? (Ropeadope), Tim Eriksen's Every Sound Below (Appleseed), Kíla's Luna Park (Kíla), Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose (Interscope), Ivo Papasov's Fairground (Kuker), and Warblefly's Crashing Through The Trees (own label). For the category fRoots rather vaguely calls 'reissue/historic/compilation', he chose these recordings: Oysterband's Twenty Golden Tie-Slackeners Plus (Running Man), Richard & Linda Thompson's I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (Island/Universal), Shirley Collins & The Albion Country Band's No Roses (Castle), and The Mekons' Fear And Whiskey (Sin).

Phil Odgers, musician par excellence in The Men They Couldn't Hang, Baby Fishlips, and Odgers & Simmonds, says 'There were 3 books that I read this year that particularly grabbed my attention. Maybe I should say 6 as I'm including Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy. Part 1, The Northern Lights (AKA The Golden Compass) was written in 1995 and I had been meaning to get round to reading it for a while but, as I have piles of books I'm meaning to get round to reading, it had to wait 9 years. Once I started it, of course, I wished it had been further up the pile. But it was worth the wait. Influences have been stated as being C. S. Lewis & Milton in particular but I would also say that there are elements of Tolkien in there too. Also, purely down to the fact that this is classified as fiction for kids, the Harry Potter phenomena (and the acceptability that has brought to adults reading kids books) has done this no harm at all. That said it is way superior to the two Potter books I've read. 

Next up was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. An enjoyable romp that everyone seems to have read/is reading.

Lastly I thoroughly enjoyed Captain Corelli's Mandolin (although I hear the film is a bit of a disappointment). Not the usual type of book that I would read but I found it riveting and heartbreaking at the same time. It has inspired a song that I'm currently working on about the way people change.

By the way, I read a lot of Sci-Fi and 'Post Apocalyptic' fiction but didn't find anything particularly mentionable in 2004.'

 

Josepha Sherman said it was a 'tough choice this year. I'd say that the most fascinating book this year is nonfiction: Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, by Howard Schwartz, from Oxford University Press. It's a complex and well-researched look at the subject by a well-known author who has also written several excellent retellings of Jewish Lore, such as Miriam's Tambourine and Elijah's Violin.'

Jennifer Stevenson, author of Trash Sex Magic, can always be counted on to wax at length about about what she likes: 'Boy did you ask at the right time. Must, must, must crow about Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. It's out in trade paper right now and I love it. For readers of time travel love stories, be prepared to meet the Ur-Time-Travel love story: this story bypasses all the tired parts of such stories -- how did I get here? Why are these people dressed so oddly, and why do they want to burn me at the stake? -- Who are you, madwoman, and what are you doing in my castle? etc. The Time Traveler's Wife cuts straight to the chase, over 600 pages of just the relationship. The lovers live within a time paradox so painful and frustrating that their self-control is all that keep them sane, and honor illuminates their love in a way you've never imagined. A lightning-fast read, wrenchingly emotional.

Also, I just finished Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Is this a weird book. The voice is letter perfect English regency, a very familiar alternate universe for me, and the magical sensibility is hyperdark, worthy of Greer Gilman's wet black winter wood-magics. It finishes, but I had a sense too that this might not be the end of the story -- perhaps more might come. Maybe with some female protagonists next time, Susanna, please? My understanding is that this book took well over a decade to write; here's hoping the next will come sooner.

The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue by Barbara Samuel, another highly emotional read, with a classy use of goddess material.

A Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett's blackly funny story about women disguised as soldiers. A Hatful of Sky, sequel to Wee Free Men, also by Terry Pratchett, brilliant stuff to give your nine-year-old niece. Must also mention another Pratchett backlist, The Truth, by Terry Pratchett, which this Yank feels keenly in an nation which has lost the freedom of its press. I'm the daughter and granddaughter of newspapermen and women. The Truth is the real deal, a story about real newspapers in a magical world.

Also 'Crowd of Bone' by Greer Gilman in Small Beer Press anthology Trampoline. This story just won a World Fantasy Award. Simply astounding, a sort-of 'ur-wiccan' sensibility. Gilman's stuff feels like the primordial ooze from which witchcraft and paganism sprang. It feels too old to be somebody's 'ism'. It just is. It's dark and countrified and angry and secretive and there's an overpowering smell of wet leaves and sheepshit. I wish she'd write something oftener than once a decade.'

James Stoddard, author of the Evenmere novels, The High House and The False House, has some interesting choices: 'My favorites for this year were, in no particular order: The Certain Hour by James Branch Cabell, Beyond the Golden Stair by Hannes Bok (I've read it three times. I'm not certain what the fascination is, but I always enjoy it), Summerland by Michael Charbon, The Other Wind by LeGuin. But the very best book I read this year was David Copperfield by Dickens, which contains pretty much anything a writer needs to know about how to write a first person novel. I also picked up Prince of Ayodhya by Ashok K. Banker, which is certainly worth mentioning, as it is a retelling of the Hindu myth cycle The Ramayana. To my Western brain, the world of Hindu myth seems as alien as any fictional planet ever created. Just getting the hang of the names takes some effort.'

I had already asked Charles Vess when I interviewed him a few weeks earlier if anything struck him as particularly worth mentioning in what he read in '04? Here's his answer: 'I would have to say that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was one of the most wholly satisfying books that I've read this year. From the arch, witty dialog of her characters to the beautiful weirdness of her descriptions of Fairyland it was lovely, just lovely. After finishing her novel the only thing that I felt lacking was yet more of her story for me to read. Then too, I finally caught up with Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch and The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and Richard Park's The Ogre's Wife (all of which were marvelous).' And then the rascal said 'I won't talk about the splendid array of graphic novels that have come out this year because I'll be mentioning those in my yearly column on comic books and graphic novels in the Years Best Fantasy and Horror that will be out next summer. I'm just starting the current column and need to save my words for that.'

 

According to Will Shetterly, he didn't get to read enough, and he has 'a terrible memory, so this is a challenge. I thought Lois Lowrey's The Giver was very, very nice, and Willa Cather's One of Ours nags at me in a good way. Robert Houston's Bisbee '17 is a fine dramatization of a shocking moment in labor history, and James Byrkit's Forging the Copper Collar is an excellent history of that time. Hmm. Part of my terrible memory includes a failure to be sure when I read something. So I'll mention Willis Barnstone's The New Covenant, a great translation of the gospels, and Paul Kriwaczek's In Search of Zarathustra, which is, among other things, a good way to learn what inspired those gospels.'

 

A late night toast by the group to Josepha Sherman for the fabulous new flat she's just moving into finished off the evening.

After that, the guests retired to the Pub to hear the Neverending Session perform what they claim was an extended set of Scottish Christmas tunes and songs which they had dedicated to memory of Robbie Burns.

 

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Updated 2 January 2005, 06:00 GMT (MN)