Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books Are Real

My friend Brian Clegg, smarting from the fact that he is now only the second most famous person in Swindon, despite the fact that he is the author of more books than at which you could shake a stick, any one of which would make an ideal seasonal gift opportunity, has had cause to leap gallantly to my defence recently, though he hasn't really, oh, all right, maybe a bit.
A Shameless Plug, recently

I shall explain.

My book The Science of Middle-earth has been published in various forms since 2004. It was, at first, conventionally published. When the paperback went out of print it was picked up by ReAnimus Press, who also publish my fiction (they also publish Brian Clegg's YA-SF novel Xenostorm Rising.)

Now, ReAnimus is a small press, and cuts out the various middlepersons by concentrating on eBooks, and where it does printed books, they are created through Amazon's proprietary CreateSpace print-on-demand service.

However, for various perfectly ordinary reasons to do with the book's history, ReAnimus doesn't publish the e-Version of The Science of Middle-earth - that's done by my agent, who, like many agents, these days, I suspect, is picking up electronic rights of previously published books on behalf of their authors, and publishing them directly. In my case, my agency is doing it through the Amazon Kindle Select program.

One of the benefits of this program is that you are allowed to promote your e-book at a discount, or even as a giveaway, for a certain number of days in a year. If you click on this link, for example, you'll see that The Science of Middle-earth is now downloadable for free, until sometime tomorrow, as part of a promotion agreed between me and my agent as a blatant way to capitalise on the release in cinemas of The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies. Think of it as a loss-leader. Because I make peanuts from books, as a whole (I earn my living as a minor functionary at the Submerged Log Company), it sometimes works to give away books for a short period as a promotion, as a way of publicizing the book (it's not in shops, remember, so you won't see it there) in the hope of building up a larger, paying readership later.

So, as you see, there are all sorts of ways to publish, print and generally disseminate books. You can do it through a publisher, and have it sold in shops. If you have an agent, he or she can act as a publisher. You can sell electronic versions, or paperback copies by conventional means (printing books in advance, storing them in a warehouse, and distributing them to bookshops in a truck) or by print-on-demand (printing copies only when readers order them, and delivering them to their door.)

You can even publish yourself.

I do all of the above. My book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution is published entirely conventionally, and is doing very nicely, thank you. You can buy it electronically, either as a download or as a print book, and you can buy it in the proverbial All Good Bookshops. At the other end of the scale I have self-published a children's book and a collection of short stories: you can buy them as downloads for Kindle or as paperbacks through the Lulu print-on-demand platform.

The point is that I am a real author, and all these are real books. However, when Brian very kindly tweeted that I was giving away The Science of Middle-earth
he was taken to task in this fashion -
I suspect that the tweeter felt that I was being exploited as an author, and downloads are some conspiracy to shut down bookshops. This is only a suspicion, however, as twitter is not the place for debating anything more complicated than playground-style spats.

Blogs are arguably better venues, so in this post I'd like to thank Brian for having put up with this strange twitter exchange on my behalf; and to reassure Mike Whiting, for it is he, that I am not being exploited, and also that there are many more ways of publishing books than are dreamed of in his philosophy.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Madness Of King Thorin (Spoilers!)

What follows is a review of the magic-lantern production entitled The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, viewed at the Cromer Enormoplex (in 2D, regular frame rate) last night in the company of Crox Minor, Crox Minima and some other people. Be aware that this is Mirkwood, Dorothy, and There Are Spoilers.

There's a feature in the extended DVD version of The Fellowship Of The Ring, I think, when Director Peter Jackson says that his earnest wish when depicting medieval swordplay was not to remind people of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This brought a wry smile, for I well remember watching Fellowship when it first came out in the Elder Days at the Empire, Leicester Square, specifically the part when hero Aragorn slices the arm off a gigantic orc, only for the villain to come back for more, at which my companion whispered "'tis but a scratch."

There's a Pythonesque moment in The Battle Of The Five Armies, too: when the dwarves, holed up in the Lonely Mountain, hurl insults at the ranks of elvish warriors from the ramparts. "Your mother was a hamster!" they seem to say, "and you, Monsieur Elven King with your silly knees-bend running-around computer-generated giant elk and your soldiers with their ridiculous gold helmets that look like an assortment of Ferrero-Rocher chocolates already!"

But this is a minor slip, and, given the layout of the forces ranged for the battle that's the centrepiece of the film, probably unavoidable.

The action starts immediately where the previous episode, The Desolation of Smaug (reviewed here) left off. (For your further reading pleasure, I reviewed the first episode, An Unexpected Journey, here.) Hardly a gnat's crotchet into the action and Smaug is laying fiery waste to Lake Town. He meets his match in fisherman-turned-hero Bard the Bowman who shoots the dragon with the last of the fabled black arrows his own ancestor Girion had used to shoot at the selfsame monster. This time Bard succeeds - using his own son's shoulder as a prop for the arrow. All very William Tell.

The firestorm that engulfs Lake Town hasn't even subsided before the clouds of war gather. The elves are on the march; the sorry residents of Lake Town regroup in the ruins of Dale, much closer to the Mountain. Thorin sends for his cousin Dain in the Iron Hills, and orcs emerge from holes the length and breadth of Middle Earth. They aren't the only things that emerge from holes, either - we see a glimpse of the mighty were-worms, and wonder if we've stepped into a remake of Dune. Dain duly arrives (a sparkling cameo by Billy Connolly) and battle is joined.

And jolly good it is too. The most involving parts of the Middle-earth films are the set-piece battles. Mrs Crox is quite indifferent to Tolkien but loves a good war film, and, as such, The Two Towers had her on the edge of her seat, even though she neither knew nor cared about the characters or the story. I think most cinéastes would agree that the siege of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers counts as one of the best-made battle sequences in all the annals of film-making. A high point for me in the Rings films is the Ride of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King. The awe and terror on the faces of Merry and Eowyn and the other riders as they see Minas Tirith in flames and beset by orcs, and their courage to ride on to the death, regardless. It's perhaps no coincidence that Tolkien rated that as his favourite part of his own tale, too (don't ask, it's in his Letters somewhere.)

So it is with The Battle Of The Five Armies. The clue's in the title, though I have never been quite sure how many armies Tolkien kept up his sleevies. It's a war film, and pulls no punches. There is death on an epic scale. Civilians as well as soldiers are put to fire and sword, and Howard Shore's wonderful music fades to nothing in many places so as not to distract from the dismemberment, decapitation, bone-crunching impacts and the shattering of shield-arms. But as with the Ride of the Rohirrim, the emotional force of the fighting comes from the characters. Fighting is all the more desperate when one first sees the terror in the eyes of those about to join in battle. And Jackson is too good a film-maker not to know that even the best battle scenes soon become tiring if not intercut with more character-driven sequences.

Therefore we see and feel Galadriel and Gandalf pushed to the limits of life and energy in their effort to expel Sauron from the ruins of Dol Guldur. As Cate Blanchett noted of Galadriel, the elf queen whom she plays, in this film she 'loses her shit'. The loss of composure of one who was raised in the Blessed Realm, and as one of the original Noldor rebels was a Shit-Loser Extraordinaire, is something to behold.

Again and again, the emotional temperature of the battle is raised by its dissection into a series of set-piece single combats - between all-action-she-elf Tauriel and orc chieftain Bolg; between Saruman, Galadriel and the Nazgûl; between Legolas and almost everyone; and, most notably, Thorin and his old nemesis Azog the Defiler. That this last takes place against a background of ice adds a wonderfully gothic edge, but it's the motivations of the individual characters we feel most keenly. Jackson spares us nothing. We witness the death, in graphic detail, of characters we have come to care about; and the sorrow of those left behind.

But the biggest battle of all is of one character with himself. Along with the Helm's Deep sequence, the most engaging part of The Two Towers was the conversation between the two sides of Gollum's personality. So it is here. We witness Thorin's slide into dragon-sickness in agonizing close-up. His love for the hoard comes to dominate all things, and again once Jackson excels at the resonance of the drama with its setting.

A key moment in The Desolation of Smaug was the scene where the dwarves try to bury the dragon in a lake of molten gold. It wasn't in the book, but should have been, if only for its symbolic value. If one thing conquers avarice, it is hate. Smaug emerges from the golden lake to slake his temper on Lake Town. Thorin, however, aspires not to reckless hate but to stubborn pride, and walking on the floor of solid gold left in Smaug's wake, imagines himself being swallowed by it, and belatedly comes to his senses.

And what of Bilbo, the everyman character through whose eyes we see it all? Well, in the book, we don't. Bilbo is knocked out cold quite early in the action and we hear about most of the battle afterwards, Greek-Chorus style. In my two earlier reviews (links above) I say that Tolkien was very good at the telling, and much less so at the showing. Film-makers, on the other hand, are constrained to show everything, and as Tolkien's description of the Battle of the Five Armies is exiguous, Jackson is fairly free to colour it in as he pleases.

Yet the moments when Bilbo comes to the fore are played more or less exactly as they are in the book. His appearance at the Elvenking's tent with the Arkenstone; his final parting with the mortally wounded Thorin; and the by-play between him and the dwarves when it becomes clear that he prefers the mechanics of war and hardware and armour and story to be safely tucked away in books, rather than taking part in the events himself. When invited by Balin to a feast to mark Thorin attaining legendary status, Bilbo demurs in jarringly anachronistic fashion, saying that he and the other dwarves would be welcome at Bag End anytime, though noting that Tea is at Four.

I had worried that Jackson would, at the end, fluff it. Unlike many Tolkien fans I didn't mind at all that The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit were altered in the course of film-making -- indeed, I'd have been disappointed if they hadn't, and any true Tolkienian will know in their heart that tales change and grow in the telling, and are passed on to other tellers for alteration and embellishment for good or ill. That having been said I still rankle that The Return Of The King concluded in a welter of lachrymose non-endings and that the 'Scouring of the Shire' was glossed over.

I needn't have worried here, though, for The Battle Of The Five Armies ends, quite rightly, with Bilbo arriving home to find that Bag End and all its contents are up for auction, their owner having been presumed dead. His once comfortable hobbit-hole, although slightly dented by the knockabout dwarves in An Unexpected Journey, has been all but denuded by his own neighbours, who don't recognise him. Tolkien wrote his tales as a war veteran, keenly aware that homecomings for soldiers were often accompanied by pain and alienation. More or less the only thing Bilbo has left is a monogrammed pocket handkerchief - the one thing he regretted leaving behind, three films ago and thirteen months of story earlier.

Two last things. (With apologies for my own False Endings.)

One: I do have a beef about Jackson's casual use of domestic animals. I admit I have become rather fond of Radagast and his Rhosgobel Rabbits. But there's Thranduil's ridiculous elk. Dain arrives on a pig. And just when a few dwarves want to scale a mountain, the requisite number of mountain goats arrive to take them. They appear as arbitrarily as Aragorn's horse vanishes just before the final assault on the Black Gate in The Return of the King.

Two: It is very likely that this will be Peter Jackson's last excursion into Middle-earth. Some have asked whether The Silmarillion will ever be filmed. This is unlikely, for all sorts of good reasons. First, The Silmarillion as published was created not by J. R. R. Tolkien himself, but posthumously, by his son Christopher, from a dragon's hoard of notes left by his father. Christopher is very much alive and his hostility to the films is well-known. This hostility is wrong, in my view, and smacks not a little of dragon sickness, but nobody cares what I think.

Again, The Silmarillion is not a coherent novel but a collection of more or less loosely connected tales, some only sketched, other presented in more detail. Perhaps the fullest abstract is what has become to be known as The Children of Húrin, but there are others whose existence is hinted at, even in the films, such as the tale of Lúthien and Beren, the Voyage of Earendil, and the Fall of Gondolin.

Most pertinently, at least in my view, is that the Silmarillion contains little that might engage a film-going audience. As Tolkien said himself, those tales are basically all about the elves - human beings feature little, dwarves less, and hobbits not at all. Some people (myself included) love The Silmarillion for its high and remote air, redolent of antiquity and regret and loss, even without a hobbit through whose eyes we could interpret the action. But I suspect that it would be as hard a sell as a film script as Tolkien found it as a book, to his publishers.

It is fitting that Peter Jackson has left Tolkien's world on such a monumental high as is The Battle Of The Five Armies - in my opinion the best of the the three Hobbit films, and arguably of all six in the Middle-earth canon. For now, though, Elvish Has Left The Building.

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice #57

This one kindly sent in by Dr T. K. of Lexington, Kentucky. ...
… at the sight of which one might spontaneously eructate such interrogative lines as 'Hark! What DC Current from Yonder Circuit Breaks?' or perhaps 'Shall I Compare Thee To A Large Green Box In A Field?' notwithstanding inasmuch as which 'Is this a Rectifier I see Before Me?'

Dr T. K. (for it is he) tells me that there's a Shakespeare Festival each year in the Arboretum in Lexington, and this transformer is a permanent installation. All's Well that Ends Well.


Friday, December 12, 2014

This Christmas I've Gone To The Dogs

The stories that have moved the Gees most this year are those involving cruelty to dogs by the moronic and careless humans who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Dogs are sensitive, intelligent creatures bred specifically to love us and do our bidding. As Ogden Nash says in An Introduction to Dogs -


They cheer up people who are frowning/ And rescue people who are drowning.

Dogs do not appear to have what humans call a 'theory of mind' and are cognitively equivalent to a human toddler. Therefore the abuse, torture and abandonment of dogs constitutes, at best, a gross betrayal of trust equivalent in some ways to the physical or mental abuse of a small child.

Therefore we're not sending out Christmas Cards this year - instead we've donated a wedge to the Dogs Trust which works to find the homes for dogs they deserve, rather than the ones fate has thrown at them.

As Ogden Nash goes on to say


Dogs are upright as a steeple/ And much nicer than people.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Very Short Festive Gift

There's never been a more exciting or confusing time to be a reader. The number of formats in which a work of literature might reach you is growing apace. I shouldn't be surprised if one format (not found in the appealing cartoon on the left) might soon be direct thought transference from the author's computer, or even the author's cat. [There's always Interpretive Dance - Ed.]

My very latest book is called Hunting Unicorns, and Other Stories, and it's available as a print-on-demand paperback or as an ebook for your kindle (or compatible app). It's not really that new, of course. Well, the collection is, but the contents aren't. Well, some of them are. But only a bit.

I decided to produce the collection when various friends, having read and enjoyed one or more of my other books, asked me whether I had any more books, and, finding that I'm not writing anything in particular at the moment (despite various plans and good intentions) I thought I could at least scrape the barrel put out a small collection of published but previously uncollected material. So, here it is - I hope you enjoy it.

All the stories in the book have been available in one or other formats or both, except one, which has been available in neither, because it's new to this collection. The collection as a whole has previously been available in neither format before, but it is now. In both. Simultaneously, together, both at once and at the same time, though you can of course choose which one you like to suit you. Chacun à son goût, as we say here in Cromer.

Hunting Unicorns, being as it is a very short collection of very short stories, would make an ideal stocking-filler, though it can be quite hard to wrap an electronic book, I admit. Perhaps you can buy an Amazon gift voucher or unearth a promotional code. Having it recited by a mechanical raven might be an appealing prospect.

Nevermore!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Christmas Story

It's the morning before Christmas Eve and at the North Pole Father Christmas wakes up. The first thing he notices is that he has a dreadful hangover. His head is pounding like two jack-in-the-boxes have taken a nutcracker behind the reindeer stables and beaten it up.

The second thing he notices is that he's overslept. It's 10 o'clock in the morning - and he really should have been up at six, feeding the reindeer, checking the sleigh and making sure the elves (mischievous little tikes, the lot of 'em) were hard at work at the toy factory.

Then he remembers that it was the elves' Christmas Party the night before, which explains why he feels so dreadful and that he's overslept.

He gets up - too quickly - his head throbs even worse - dresses in his red jacket, red breeches, black boots and red fur-trimmed hat, and stumbles into the kitchen. All is cold and bare. The first thing he notices is a piece of paper on the table. It's a note, scrawled in a hurry by Mother Christmas.

GONE SHOPPING. 

she has written. The next sentence makes him feel even worse than he does already.

FORGOT TO MENTION, MY MOTHER IS COMING TO STAY WITH US THIS CHRISTMAS.

There's nothing in the cupboards or the fridge for breakfast, which explains why Mrs Christmas has gone shopping. Not that he'd be able to keep anything down, the way his stomach is churning. So he decides to try and make up for some lost time in a day that's already almost half gone. He leaves the house and heads across the ice and snow to the toy factory. Snow starts to fall - a blizzard is brewing.

He's hoping that the warmth and light and industry of the toy factory will restore his spirits. Nothing like seeing hundreds of elves, making toys, wrapping them up in cheerful festive paper and tying them up with red ribbon, he thinks. But when he reaches the toy factory it's as cold and bare as the backside of an unbasted frozen turkey. Not an elf in sight. Unwrapped and half-wrapped toys are strewn all over the worktables, benches and floor. Then Father Christmas remembers it was the elves' Christmas Party last night and things had gotten a bit - well, festive. The elves would almost certainly be as hungover as he was, perhaps more. Ho hum, he says to himself. I'll call back later. There are other jobs on his list.

He shuts the factory door with perhaps more force than he intended - the noise reverberates round his skull and makes his teeth ache - and heads over to the stables to check on the reindeer. They'd be hungry by now. He slogs over to the stables in the teeth of an increasingly strong and icy wind, to find that, like the toy factory, the stables are as quiet and cheerless as a miser's grave. Worse, all the doors are hanging open, and all the reindeer have gone. No Dancer, no Prancer, no Vixen. Neither Dasher nor Dancer, Comet, Cupid, Nigel or Blitzen. Not even his old faithful Rudolf. Then Father Christmas remembers it was the elves' Christmas Party last night and the little so-and-so's must have let them all out. Oh well, sighs Father Christmas, no doubt the reindeer would be back when they were hungry. No point heading out to round them up now. It's not as if he hasn't got lots of other things to do.

Parked behind the reindeer stables is his sleigh. It's already piled high with sacks of toys, but there are a few sacks still to load up. So he hefts a particularly large one over his shoulder and steps onto the sleigh, but - crack! - his foot goes right through a rotten running board, he drops the sack, and toys scatter all over the ice. Cursing, he pulls his leg free - his boot is torn and he's done his leg a mischief, no time to see what - and gathers up as many of the scattered toys as he can before the freshening snowfall buries them all. He replaces them in the sack by the side of the sleigh. Right back where it was before he started, only now he'll have to go to the toolshed and find some wood and a hammer and nails to repair the sleigh.

Father Christmas limps over to the shed. At least the pain in his leg has taken his mind off his headache for a while. Wood, nails and hammer quickly found, Father Christmas repairs the sleigh, though not without some trouble, as the blizzard - it is now a blizzard - makes it hard to see. The white fluffy bobble on his hat keeps swinging round in the gale-force wind and walloping him in the face. That, and his headache, and his hurting leg, and his nausea, means that it's hardly an expert job, and it's not achieved without bashing himself a couple of times with the hammer and almost nailing himself to the woodwork. Eventually, though, it's done.

Jobs or no jobs, says Father Christmas, what I need now is a drink. He limps home, the pain his leg getting worse with each step. When he finally gets indoors he finds that the drinks cabinet is bare. No bottles. Nothing. Not a drop. Of course, it was the elves' Christmas Party last night and they must have raided the lot, even the nameless sticky liqueurs in fancy bottles that Mrs Christmas invariably brings home from foreign holidays which they never otherwise touch.

Well, he says, at least I can have a cup of tea.

The tea caddy, though, has other ideas. When he manages to pry it open, snagging three finger nails and punching himself in the face, there is - no tea. Ah yes, he thinks. That's why Mrs Christmas has gone shopping.

Finally Father Christmas sits down at the kitchen table. It's past noon now, the day before Christmas Eve. No elves at work in the toy factory. No reindeer. The toys only half-loaded on to a badly patched-up sleigh. And here he is, head throbbing, leg throbbing, hands sore from hammers and nails and errant kitchenware, he's even been punched in the face by his own hat, and not a drop of drink, not even a cup of tea for comfort. Ho ho bloody ho. Could things really get any worse?

There is a knock at the door.

Father Christmas rises wearily to answer it. When he does so his view is blocked by a gigantic conifer.

"Hello Father Christmas!" pipes a small but oddly piercing voice from floor level. There, on the threshold, holding up this enormous tree, all alone, is the tiniest little fairy.

"I love Christmas!" the fairy continues, "don't you just adore Christmas too, Father Christmas? Of course you do! And, well, Christmas, it's my FAVOURITE time of the year. And I saw this lovely tree, and I thought it would look just gorgeous in your house. So I brought it over."

Without waiting to be asked, the fairy barges in to the house, carrying the tree and trailing wind-wracked snow and pine needles behind it. "Where shall I put it?" the fairy asks.

Which is why, to this day, when you see a fairy anywhere indoors at this time of year, it'll invariably have a conifer shoved up its arse.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reads Of The Year

This year I've read forty-two full-length books, and I have listed them all below, with links to a well-known online retailer possibly based for tax purposes administrative convenience in August Bank-Holiday Island, which for those who don't know is a UK Crown Dependency between Easter Island and Christmas Island.

I have not counted quite a few short stories, letters, promissory notes, billets-doux, final notices, affidavits, death threats, county-court summonses, paternity suits or published books I'd read before, though a notable omission is the vast and rambling short-story collection The Weird which I have still hardly broached despite having read at least a novel's length of material from it. Neither have I counted two full-length draft novels and one collection of short stories sent by friends, for their comments.

Some of these books were sent to me to review. Many others were picked up in second-hand shops; passed to me by friends or children with their recommendations; or ferreted into my e-Reader in anticipation of long trips. A few I even bought, new: like, you know, in shops, for real money. Some of the books were published very recently. Others will be old hat to some. But whatever their publication history, they were all new to me.

The time has come for me to select my ten favourite reads of the year, and they are, in no particular order...

Wendy Moore: The Knife Man
The rollicking and engaging biography of pioneering surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) who found surgery a brutal discipline hardly advanced from the Medieval, but left it at least pointing towards the modern age of professionalism. All at a time when neither antiseptics nor anaesthetics had been invented, and very few medicines actually worked. Makes one truly grateful for our National Health Service. (Paperback, bought in the gift shop of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Full review here.)

Armand LeRoi: The Lagoon
A young man, son of a doctor working in an obscure country practice, sent to the Athens of his day to learn about the ways of the world, but through a series of unlikely circumstances spends time on a remote island where the wonders of the natural world are laid out before him, the encounter changing the ways of thought forever. No, not Darwin, but Aristotle (and yes, the Athens really was … er … Athens) who is the subject of this truly luminous biography. (Hardback, sent to me to review by the Guardian. See my full review here.)

Simon Schama: The Story Of The Jews (Part One)
Rarely has history found such an approachable exponent. It's a huge subject, and a huge book, but a marvellously easy read. There is, of course, a serious point. Jews have contributed disproportionately to human culture, but have been rewarded by intermittent but historically relentless persecution by every society in which they are constrained to live (and this book only gets as far as 1492.) Zionism may be unfashionable, even unpalatable. But it is also necessary. (Hardback, Hannukhamas present from Mrs Crox.)

Adam Roberts: Jack Glass
Master-criminal Jack Glass is a true revolutionary, working in a Solar System a few centuries hence whose business is controlled by a few super-rich, omni-powerful Clans whose machinations all but ignore the welfare of the trillions of paupers living in the billions of tiny, fragile, space habitats of the interplanetary slum that's The Sump. Roberts has succeeded in creating something genuinely futuristic - that is, more than merely extrapolative - with characters who, while impossibly exotic in many ways, are rounded and believable. The language, too, is gorgeous, a strange but atttractive argot which stands to 20th-century English as our daily converse stands to the English of Shakespeare. (Yes, there is a glossary.) Futuristic, then, and yet anachronistic. The final pages reminded me not so much of Bester or Harrison than Sayers, so much did they resemble the by-play between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. (Paperback, bought new in Waterstones in Norwich. The above modified from my full review here.)

Dan Simmons: The Terror
This meticulously researched fictionalization of the lost Franklin Expedition of 1845 to find the North-west Passage could be grim reading, and it is. Victims of incredible privations, hunger, sickness, brutality, occasional outbreaks of violence and the all-consuming cold, you just know that the expedition is doomed as its members are picked off, one by one, in various nasty ways. One long slog, just one damn thing after another. But this book holds you fast like a ship stuck in pack-ice, its vice-like grip never letting you go. And even if you think you know where this book is going … you don't. And it doesn't. (Hardback, borrowed from my friend Mr. K. Z. of Finchley.)

Neil Gaiman: American Gods
If you've read any Gaiman at all, you'll find the world of American Gods instantly recognisable - the world in which we live might be grimy and workaday, but just at the edges of sight, just beneath the surface, the Old Gods are there, trying to scratch a living as belief in them fades. So it is that ex-con Shadow comes into the employment of Odin, who is trying to rally support from the gods of all nations and cultures to fight the Last Battle against consumerism, media, marketing and the American Way. American Gods is most extraordinary road trip you'll ever take. (Paperback, bought secondhand.)

Sara Crowe: Bone Jack
Fifteen-year-old Ash Tyler likes to run. He's so good that he's been selected to be the stag in his town's annual Stag Chase, where the stag has to outrun a pack of human hounds across the mountainous wilderness surrounding the town. But the stag chase has very ancient roots connected more with blood and sacrifice than tourism and entertainment. In a land ravaged by drought, disease and recession that have driven Ash's soldier father to madness and his best friend Mark's father to suicide, the countryside wants something back. Something bloody. (Paperback, bought new, probably on Amazon. Extract from my full review here.)

William Boyd: Brazzaville Beach
A young researcher pitches up in a long-established research facility in Africa built on the behaviour of chimpanzees. Funding - and scientific reputations - are built on the idea that chimpanzees are peaceable creatures. If they are violent, it is because they have been disturbed by Man. When the researcher finds that chimpanzees are murderously violent even without human help, her own life is endangered. This remarkable book was made all the more luminous for me because I happened to be reading it when a research paper crossed my desk at the Submerged Log Company whose message was precisely this. (Paperback, bought secondhand.)

Stieg Larsson: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
I do like a good whodunit, but what I liked about this is that it gives one an insight into a society that seems very similar to mine, but is sufficiently different to elicit the occasional frisson of exoticism. So it is with the first of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, set in Sweden and featuring dogged investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist and the remarkable but seemingly deranged security consultant Lisbeth Salander. One thing I learned was that despite its sheen of sexual equality and general civilization, Sweden labours under a quite eye-watering burden of violence against women. I have yet to see the magic lantern production of this fascinating and absorbing story. (Paperback, bought secondhand.)

And the prize for Best Read of 2014 goes to ….

… roll of drums …

… agonizing wait …

Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
The circus of the title isn't so much one Big Top, but a collection of truly marvelous sideshows, in which foretold fortunes really do come true; in which illusions are real but made to seem illusory; in which magic really happens. The circus appears unannounced, and disappears just as suddenly. It opens at dusk, and stays open until dawn. It appears to be the production of visionary impresario Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, whose aim is to push the boundaries of entertainment. But Lefèvre is only dimly aware of the reason why his circus exists. It is the locus of an eternal duel between two mages whose battles are fought by proxy, between their protegés. The pupils are born into battle. The fight is to the death, even though they are not told the rules of engagement or even the identity of the adversary. (Extract from my review here.)

So, why does this make the top spot? Mainly it's the quality of the writing. Crisp, clear, free of cliché, unusual and astringent in tone. Okay, so the ending seems to dribble away somewhat, but the journey is never less than enchanting. But mostly because it was recommended to me by Crox Minima - who loaned me her paperback (bought new, probably from Amazon.) Which makes it extra special.

The reader might have noted, as I just did, that all my favourite reads of the year were printed books. None were e-books. Indeed, although ebooks are great for traveling, my overwhelming preference for reading pleasure remains print.

… honorable mentions go to ...
Svante Pääbo: Neanderthal Man (paperback, review copy)
Gregory Berns: How Dogs Love Us (paperback, review copy)
Adam Rutherford: Creation (paperback, sent by the author)
Gerd Gigerenzer: Gut Feelings (paperback, loan from Prof. A. W. of Potters Bar)
Katrina S. Firlik: Brain Matters (paperback, borrowed from Crox Minor)
Brian Clegg: A Brief History of Infinity (paperback, bought new in the Science Museum shop)
Andreas Wagner: Arrival Of The Fittest (paperback, review copy)
John Gribbin: Alone In The Universe (hardback, bought new online)
Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart: What Does A Martian Look Like? (paperback, bought secondhand online)
Stephen Fry: The Fry Chronicles (paperback, bought secondhand)
Kate Adie: The Kindness Of Strangers (paperback, bought secondhand)
Francis Wheen: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World (paperback, bought secondhand)
Charles Stross: The Apocalypse Codex (ebook)
Richard Sutton: Home (ebook)
Justina Robson: Natural History (paperback, bought secondhand)
Neal Asher: Prador Moon (paperback, new, but reduced rate from publisher)
Gregory Benford: In The Ocean Of Night (paperback, secondhand)
Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London (ebook)
Alastair Reynolds: On The Steel Breeze (ebook)
Hannu Rajaniemi: The Quantum Thief (paperback, gift from Mrs Crox)
Bruce Sterling: The Artificial Kid (paperback, secondhand)
Alastair Reynolds: Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (paperback, secondhand)
Charles Stross: Neptune's Brood (ebook)
Sara Paretsky: Burn Marks (ebook)
Sara Paretsky: Total Recall (ebook)
Sara Paretsky: Indemnity Only (ebook)
Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Played With Fire (paperback, bought secondhand)
Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (paperback, bought secondhand)
Robert Harris: The Ghost (paperback, bought secondhand)
Robert Harris: Archangel (hardback, signed copy bought secondhand for Crox Minor)
Ernest Cline: Ready Player One (ebook)
Dan Simmons: Flashback (ebook)