Thursday 28 December 2023

Monsters and Manuals - 2023 in Review

No more champagne. And the fireworks are through. Here we are, me and you. Feeling lost and feeling blue...

Oh wait, sorry, I think I've been listening to too much Now That's What I Call Christmas! on Spotify this last month. Where was I? Yes, that's right. The year in review: 2023.

Well, it's been an eventful year professionally, and indisputably this has taken my attention away from the blog a little bit - although, at 105 entries and counting, this actually turns out to have been the most monstersandmanualsiest year since 2019 (when I wrote 143 entries) and indeed the seventh most monstersandmanualsiest year overall since records began. 

This also means I had to put my Three Mile Tree campaign (running weekly since January 2021) on hiatus in September, simply because I just haven't had the time to do it justice. I miss regular gaming, but I have to confess I don't miss panicking about trying to get everything else done each week alongside finding time to run a session. I hope sufficient slack will develop in 2024.

I continue to operate largely in ignorance of what is going on across the blogosphere and the RPG industry as a whole. I increasingly think of my work here on the blog, the stuff I am writing (yes, I am writing), and the campaign I run (when able) as a wing in my monastery of the mind, and to be frank I am less and less interested in the outside world - even the outside world of 'the hobby' as such - impinging on it. Some people might say this makes me sound like a grumpy old fart. Those people would be right. But in the monastery of my mind I am surrounded only by beautiful women telling me how great and wise and sexy I am, so I'm not that bothered what the rest of you think.

As far as my RPG-related projects are going, Yoon-Suin 2nd edition will be out in the coming months after its successful Kickstarter earlier in the year. The Great North will, if all goes to plan, follow. I've also just about finished off typing my notes on Three Mile Tree into a coherent, readable document, so as to form the basis for a book: this will be my first proper megadungeon release (containing nine levels of roughly fifty rooms each on average). Then it's pressing on with Behind Gently Smiling Jaws, at long last - and possibly other more informal projects which I will inform you about in due course.

I will also - whisper it - almost certainly reach 2,000 posts next year, being currently on 1,936. When Monsters & Manuals hit ten years of age I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to shortlist entries for a short book release and failed. God knows how I would fare with 2,000 entries to choose from, but I am tempted to put out a proper 'Best 200 of 2,000' book when eventually I hit that milestone. I expect, indeed, that there will be overwhelming public demand for this and possibly even civil unrest if it is not forthcoming.

The best five entries of this year on the blog are, I think (in chronological order):

Assessing my output from the past 12 months, I feel like my writing gets better and better (is there a way to say this without sounding big headed?), but I confess to doing too little with it here on the blog. I feel a sense of shame about this, and it weighs on my conscience. But anyway, on that happy note, I wish you and yours the best for 2024. May it contain much dice rolling!

Monday 18 December 2023

The Sunday Seven: 17th December 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Her Christmas Knight posts an entire RPG Wargame, Investigating Censor.
  • Cyowari produces insanely nice historical snapshot maps on Deviantart.
  • This post, from almost exactly a year ago, statistically organises OSR and OSR-adjacent rulesets in attractive diagrammatic form. Why? To what end? It is the kind of mad enterprise for which the blogosphere was invented, and I salute the author for it.
  • Why did nobody tell me this blog existed? You had me at 'This week, we're going to take a look at a different aspect of ancient infantry tactics: how heavy infantry shield formations work.'
  • Ricardo Pinto has completely reworked his Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy into seven shorter, punchier novels; I have been reading the first, The Masters, and it is excellent. 
  • I am a big fan of Pariah, but I am a bit embarrassed to confess I had no idea who the author was or that they have a blog. Well, they do.
  • OK, the music is cheesy. But I could while away hours watching WMA videos.

Friday 15 December 2023

Seven Deadly Sinful Alignments

Work with me here: what if you were to make a system of monster design founded on an alignment system drawn from the seven deadly sins? 

The seven deadly sins are:

  • Lust, which obviously includes sexual longing but is generally used to mean other forms of desire (like lust for power, wealth, status, etc.) 
  • Gluttony, meaning overconsumption
  • Greed, meaning avarice
  • Sloth, meaning not just laziness, but a lack of care or interest in anything; a kind of navel-gazing indolent self-centredness 
  • Wrath, meaning uncontrolled rage, and particularly of the vengeful or vindictive kind 
  • Envy, ‘nuff said
  • Pride, the worst of all, which places the sinner at the centre of the universe 

You could of course create an entire bestiary of monsters grouped on the basis of instantiating these sins (goat men = lust, lungfish men = gluttony, etc.), and I may indeed do something with this idea at a future date, but it occurs to me that deploying them in combination, a little like the alignment structure, could be even more productive in inspiring ideas. What you would do is roll 1d8 (a roll of '8' being a 'neutral' result) and generate one sin, and then roll another 1d8, and put them into combination. 

Hence, I have just rolled two 1d8s, and generated a '4' and an '8'. This is a result of sloth/neutral, or True Sloth. This is a being which embodies melancholic indifference; it spreads its indolence like a cancer as it travels, and its abilities are designed to drain energy, motivation and vitality from its victims. Perhaps something like a giant slime mold? Or a plaintive, child-like spirit of mournful and pathetic anti-energy.

I've just done it again, and generated a '1' and a '5'. Lustful Wrath. This perhaps opens doorways through which one is reluctant to pass, but one can steer the result away from undesirable connotations by interepreting Lust along its nonsexual axis. This is a monster which seeks to amass power and status in the most vengeful terms and will act to destroy any who fail to bend the knee - a lich-like undead king, perhaps, or a juggernaut-like titan who dominates an entire region through sheer force of will.

One more time, and I got Gluttonous Envy. Nice: a being which seeks to devour the possessions of others (perhaps their magical abilities, to put a more interesting spin on 'gluttony'?) or is malevolently parasitic, like a primitive vampire?

A fun idea to play around with for a Thursday evening.

Monday 11 December 2023

Warhammer is not and has never been funny

This may be old news to some (a lot) of you, but I recently learned of a minor kerfuffle that took place at the end of 2021 on online spaces concerning themselves with Games Workshop-related news. A long and really, to be frank, rather histrionic essay by Tim Colwill gives all the details, but, in brief, somewhere in Spain a bloke turned up in Nazi regalia to a Warhammer 40k event and - things get a bit hazy here - the organisers of the event concluded that 'Spanish law' would not allow him to be ejected, so he was able to stay.

I find it hard to believe that this interpretation of 'Spanish law' is correct (I very much doubt it supports the position that 'because I am wearing political symbols I can't lawfully be refused entry to a private event'), but be that as it may, the whole thing worried vocal segments of the fan base, and in the end somebody at Games Workshop's PR department thought it important to issue a statement to the effect that it did not condone the behaviour of this individual (although it stated this only obliquely).

It is often the case when a company issues a statement of this kind that it tends to just draw attention to the issue while raising fresh ones, and so it was here, because whoever wrote the statement very unwisely chose to deploy the term 'satire':

The Imperium of Man stands as a cautionary tale of what could happen should the very worst of Humanity’s lust for power and extreme, unyielding xenophobia set in. Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical. 
For clarity: satire is the use of humour, irony, or exaggeration, displaying people’s vices or a system’s flaws for scorn, derision, and ridicule. Something doesn’t have to be wacky or laugh-out-loud funny to be satire. The derision is in the setting’s amplification of a tyrannical, genocidal regime, turned up to 11. The Imperium is not an aspirational state, outside of the in-universe perspectives of those who are slaves to its systems. It’s a monstrous civilisation, and its monstrousness is plain for all to see. 
That said, certain real-world hate groups – and adherents of historical ideologies better left in the past – sometimes seek to claim intellectual properties for their own enjoyment, and to co-opt them for their own agendas.

The idea here is I suppose fairly simple: don't look at us, guv, we're just holding up the Imperium of Man to ridicule ourselves, and if real-world hate groups take the wrong end of the stick, we're hardly to blame. And in one sense, of course, the spirit of the statement is impeccably correct. A company isn't to blame for the views of the people who buy its products. To claim otherwise is sheer madness, and I've never been able to understand why it is that nerds so readily fall prey to this line of thinking. As well as being into elf games, I'm also very into whisky and other fine spirits. I've often wondered quite why it is the case that, say, single malt enthusiasts don't give a monkey's whether somewhere in the world an actual honest-to-goodness Nazi is also drinking 15 year old Springbank, whereas D&D and Warhammer enthusiasts do seem to care deeply about such issues in their respective domains. But I've never been able to arrive at a satisfactory answer to that question - except perhaps to muse that bookish nerds tend not to actually understand human beings all that well on balance.

In any case, though, it was a stupid statement to make. And it was stupid for two reasons. 

The first is readily apparent: it just isn't true. Neither Warhammer nor Warhammer 40k has ever been satirical, unless by 'satire' one means the crushingly unfunny sub-Goon Show chaff that peppered early Games Workshop materials, of this kind of ilk:

To call that an attempt at humour is to err catastrophically on the side of charity; to call it 'satire' is to abuse the English language to the point of incomprehensibility (as would be the other standout examples, most of which revolve around 'hilarious' orc/ork names and speech). So whoever wrote the statement was onto a loser from the very beginning. 

But the statement was stupid for a much more important reason, which is that it undermines the very thing that makes Warhammer and Warhammer 40k interesting in the first place: their essentially tragic view of the universe (or, at least, the universes which they depict). If there is a message behind Games Workshop's two main settings - and here I am referring of course to pre-Age of Sigmar Warhammer - it is that mankind's battle against Chaos is at the same time sisyphian (one can never win), corrupting (one will be turned into the very thing against which one fights), and yet necessary (because the alternative is worse). The war against Chaos must be fought, always and everywhere, even in recognition that it will cost almost everything that one holds dear and one will be transformed in the process into something truly gruesome. One will end up sacrificing one's values, losing all regard for the good things that one hoped to protect, and descending into brutality and even savagery. And one will, even while recognising this, choose to do it all the same - because Chaos simply must not be permitted to win. And in a strange way the nobility of the struggle, indeed, can be said to derive precisely from the fact that it involves such great sacrifice, even at the level of values themselves - from the fact that to defeat great evil one knowingly damns oneself to evil in turn, and must face the consequences in eternity. 

To dismiss this as a mere assertion that 'Everything is bad', as Tim Colwill does, is a bit like dismissing King Lear, Othello or Oedipus Rex as 'Everything is bad'. The point of tragedy, and the reason why it has always been associated so closely with catharsis, is precisely that everything is bad - but that life is still worth living anyway. The great works of the literature of humanity, West and East, North and South, have always grappled with this fact, which might be considered the very crux of the human condition. And in their own small way, the Warhammer Old World and Warhammer 40k can be considered as contributions to that same, cross-civilizational interest in one of the fundamental features of our species and its existence in the universe. Life is hard, full of pain, corruption and suffering, but the act of living is good. Games Workshop should be proud about that fact that their ultimately daft fantasy setting speaks to this great truth, rather than being dismissive of it, and it certainly should not be retreating behind the cowardly artifice of it all being 'satire'. 

The Sunday Seven: 10th December 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Ben Gibson, of Coldlight Press, is hosting an Adventure Site Contest, closing date on January 31st. Details are here; it has actual prizes!
  • I need new gaming systems like I need a hole in the head, but Errant, which, I quote, is 'rules lite but procedure heavy', sounds like an interesting proposition.
  • There is a great trove of real life cave maps available at; usefulness varies, but inspiration is everywhere.
  • The Yellow Book of Brechewold bills itself as 'What if Jack Vance wrote Harry Potter as a sequel to TH White’s The Once and Future King?'
  • Games Workshop's share price took a hit recently (after years of barnstorming performance) on news of lower-than-expected licensing income; buy buy BUY!!!*
  • The Fighting Fantasy Project is a collection of fan-made Fighting Fantasy books which you can play online. I cannot vouch for quality, but you had me at 'A Strange Week For King Melchion The Despicable'
  • Brace yourselves... 6th edition is coming.

*Never, ever take investment advice from me, under any circumstances whatsoever.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Shieldwalls and Sorcery

The furniture of D&D is high medieval Europe, but tonally, it is a Western. The PCs are not medieval Europeans who are buried beneath complex layers of rank and status and bound by chains of obligation. They are rugged individuals wrestling with the world one-on-one: they are pioneers, not peasants. 

This is the case for two obvious reasons: the authors were American, and anyway it also just works better that way. There's a reason why Ars Magica or Harnmaster are less popular games (as good as they are on their own terms). And there is no particular problem here - in the end, the gap between default setting assumptions and the style of play hardly matter in practice, as generation upon generation of D&D players have proved.

Still, it remains the case that actually by default it probably makes more sense for the standard D&D setting to be more like the European Dark Ages* - a time of great upheaval, generalised collapse, and consequent freedom from social bonds not exactly like North America circa 1650-1850, but not exactly unlike it either. In Europe one had the retreat of the Roman Empire, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. In North America one had the collapse of pre-Columbian civilisations, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. There are of course huge differences between the two situations, but there is a similar mood music. Everything is in a state of flux, a new world waits to be born, and for a brief moment it feels as though almost anything is possible.

This makes the Beowulf period particularly fruitful as a template, as commenters on a recent entry here observed. Anglo-Saxon England (okay, Beowulf is technically set in Scandinavia) is almost the Dark Ages in microcosm - all of themes are there, from retreating Rome to barbarian invaders - and everything was gloriously kaleidoscopic and patchwork (see below for a map); this was a world in which a story like Beowulf, in which a brave adventurer just goes off and fights a monster to win fame and glory, makes perfect sense. 

Shieldwalls & Sorcery, then, is a workable concept, not as a faithful representation of historical fact, but as a kind of Yoon-Suinization of that period. Here is what I am thinking, in bullet point form:

  • When people think of Dark Ages England, they tend to instinctively take the sides of the Celts, who are the underdogs, and have the inherently appealing figure of King Arthur on their side. Shieldwalls & Sorcery, though, should have the Anglo-Saxons equivalents as the focus: they are the adventuring pioneers who have come to win fame and fortune in a strange foreign land; that's therefore who the PCs should be. 
  • This means that the native Celt-stand-ins should be stereotypically Celtic, dialled up to 11. They like sinister magic and hiding in misty forests and fens; they engage in weird sex cult rituals; they go in heavily for human sacrifice; they consort with elves and worship weird gods; they are unpredictable and fiery and given to fits of melancholia and strange flights of fancy; they are maudlin but good musicians. (All very much like a typical Saturday night in Glasgow.) They are antagonists.
  • This is historically probably wrong, because the native Celtic Britons received Christianity before the Anglo-Saxons did, but in my not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages setting it seems to make more aesthetic sense to imagine the Anglo-Saxons as the Christians, or pseudo-Christians, who have a sense that they are engaged in some sort of good vs evil struggle. This is important, because it allows me to bring in...
  • ....the idea that not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages is also populated by the Sons of Cain; different categories of monstrous enemy birthed by the murder of Abel and roaming the Earth ever since.
  • There are therefore different intersecting imaginable campaign styles here - the PCs as pioneers exploring a brave new world and winning renown; the PCs as adventurers raiding the ruins of the not-actually-Roman-Empire that has now receded; the PCs as paladins smiting the Sons of Cain and heathen elf-loving Celts; the PCs as protectors of their people, newly arrived from beyond the sea; and so on.
  • I want to reimagine D&D's classes accordingly. What would not-actually-Anglo-Saxon character classes be? Fighter, yes. Cleric, yes. But the uses of magic and druidry feel as though they should be the preserve of the Celts. Could a reconceptualised Bard be a replacement?

*We're told by historians that this is a misconception, blah blah, and that we are supposed to call it the Early Medieval Period or somesuch. Fuck off, historians.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Syncretic D&D, Or, the Shoe That Does Not Drop

And compensation, a price in gold, was settled for the Geat Grendel had cruelly killed earlier— as he would have killed more, had not mindful God and one man's daring prevented that doom.

-Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

Paging through the AD&D corpus and thinking about what it all has to say about religion, one is struck by two things. The first is the very high degree of syncretism on display. The creators invented many of their own species of (usually polytheistic) religious belief, and these are mixed in with real-world religions that are typically dead (so that, for instance, the Outer Planes are thought to be home to a variety of 'pantheons' such as the Greek, Chinese, Babylonian, Finnish, Egyptian and so on). And at the same time, of course, individual DMs who invent their own campaign settings merrily create their own systems of religion to sit alongside all of these others, also. If one stops to really think about it, this is suggestive of a vast galaxy of unrelated religions all existing together, and none of which being Truer than any of the others or being able to make a plausible universal Truth claim.

From a theological perspective the oddness of this is breezily waved aside in the source material - why wouldn't there be Finnish and orcish gods living alongside one another in the multiverse? - and, phenomenologically, the ordinary inhabitants of that multiverse see no nice distinctions: gods are gods and exert power in basically the same way, by granting spells to clerics and so on and so forth. And obviously at ground level most people, who never stray more than ten miles from their birthplace, have no conception of any of this anyway - their religion is their religion and that's that. Maybe they have some dim awareness that the local goblin tribe worships some specific deity which is different to their own, and maybe they even recognise that deity to have some real-world power and influence (and might even come to adopt it as their own if it is revealed to have more power and influence than the god their ancestors traditionally worship). But they're not worried about how it is supposed to all make sense.

The other thing that strikes one, however, is the shoe that doesn't drop - there is no explicit mention of Christianity (or Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other modern living religion) in canonical AD&D, for all that the religion is clearly latent within it. The cleric, who banishes undead and splashed around holy water while waving a holy symbol, obviously derives from basically Christian motifs and stereotypes about exorcists and inquisitors; many of the monsters - especially the undead - only really make sense as monsters when founded on a basis of Christian folk belief (which holds that coming back from the dead is intrinsically evil, as opposed to something that happens once a year when the ancestors come home for dinner, or whatever); the devils and demons clearly use the iconography of medieval Christian ideas about hell; and so on. It is almost as though there is an implied Christianity in the typical D&D world lurking in the background, (one could widen this out and say an implied Abrahamic faith), which is unable to fully express itself but which is hinted at at every turn.

I know very well why the creators of AD&D never inserted Jehovah, or Allah, or whatever, into their fictional multiverse - they didn't want to piss people off. But given the standard approach to theological matters (basically that any and every religion that one could think of can exist and has actual divine power), and taking that approach on its own terms, then surely the God of the Abrahamic faiths must also be subject to the same rationale on a 'sauce for the gander' basis. There is not, I mean to say, any principled reason as to why the Finnish or orcish (or whatever) god are 'real' within AD&D world, but the Christian God is not.

Following through on this idea would have interesting ramifications. First, it opens the door to a Beowulf-inflected syncretism, in which old pagan beliefs and pagan demons (Grendel, the dragon, the eotenas, the orcneas, etc.) exist, but alongside a Christianity which is somehow more True, or at least stands in opposition to it, Here, all of the furniture of AD&D would be as it is, but there would be some notion that it is set against an underlying theology which is of a different substance entirely - there is a God who is simply more good or indeed more powerful (for all that perhaps he refrains from acting, for mysterious reasons) than the rest. 

And second, it could give rise to a campaign style that would feel as though it has more at stake. Obviously, this would be true for people who are themselves religious believers. But I think it is also true for atheists and agnostics who come from a Christian cultural background. Long, long ago I wrote a post comparing HP Lovecraft and MR James. As I put it then, there is something about MR James's horror, which assumes a kind of default Christian backdrop to events, that gives it a much greater sense of immediacy and resonance than HP Lovecraft's entirely invented mythos:

James's universe is one where things make a kind of sense, even though he was expert in keeping things hidden. The ghosts, spirits, demons who his protagonists encounter are products of Christianity; it's a vicious, vengeful, Old Testament Christianity, where sins are punished rather than forgiven, and it's a Christianity which comes more from the Apocrypha (The Testament of Solomon, Knights Templar, medieval Jewish magic) than from the Bible, but it's still a universe people from the Western world are familiar with. It's in many ways a quid pro quo universe - you get what's coming to you - but more importantly it's one that's horribly familiar, especially if you have had a church upbringing. Words like Baphomet, Satan, King Solomon, hell, the afterlife, altar, pew, prayer book, etc., have meanings to us which extend beyond the immediate story or what the writer can conjur up, and reach into our shared Judeo-Christian cultural past. This gives them a sense of weight, a sense of meaning, that made-up words like Hastur do not. 
You don't have to be religious to appreciate that certain shared myths, stories and artefacts can take on a sense or feeling of the numinous, despite your own agnosticism: they get it not from the fact that they're true, or genuinely 'spiritual', but from something deeper - they've been around a long time, thousands of years in some cases, and when something is around a long time, it tends to grow roots. The Testament of Solomon is spellbinding because these are stories which have their roots in extreme antiquity, and something that old can't help but feel significant.

The point here is that one doesn't have to be a Christian to feel the viscerality of the notion that an orc or gnoll is a son of Cain rather than an evil humanoid - or indeed that a pit fiend is satanic rather than 'chaotic' or whatever else. One gets the concept of fighting a chaos demon; but one feels, in fighting a servant of Satan, that something weightier is going on. I think this would likely be truer across the piece, in a campaign setting which integrated Christian mythology (let's call it that for the sake of argument while sticking a pin in the question of metaphysics) in a more direct way.

Friday 1 December 2023

Best Books of 2023

The greatest of traditions have a timeless quality that allows us to imagine ourselves inhabiting an unbroken chain of custom that goes back into the mists of the ancient past. And so it is with Monsters & Manuals 'Best Books of...' lists, which each year are keenly awaited by small, ruddy-cheeked children up and down the land, so that they can refer to it when deciding what to put on their Christmas lists to St Nick.

This year, the recommendations will be as follows. I limiting myself here to five books, as is the tradition; according to Goodreads - where I religiously review every book I read - I read thirty-three books in total this year, which I think is less than usual. I went back and forth over whether to include Beowulf, literally the last thing I 'read', but technically I didn't read it (I listened) and it was the subject of my most recent blog entry anyway (and will be the subject also of the next). 

So, in no particular order, the top five are:

1. Who Framed Colin Wallace? by Paul Foot. This, an account of the trial for murder of a British serviceman who blew the whistle on a 'dirty tricks' campaign by MI5 in Northern Ireland, has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter of this blog, but I thought the book was a great read and highly recommend it. From my Goodreads review:

I was swept up in this tale, which is written in an utterly absorbing way and which successfully builds a meticulously researched and argued case that Wallace was framed. The account of his trial in itself is absolutely superb - indeed, it's difficult to imagine a better example of a detailed dissection of court-room procedure in all of non-fiction. The book is marred slightly by the author's evident biases, which at times lead one to question whether he can have viewed the evidence dispassionately. But even if one does not agree with its conclusions, it's impossible to put down.

2. The Knight and The Wizard by Gene Wolfe (okay - I suppose I lied when I said this list would contain five books). I wrote a series of posts (beginning here) on the blog about The Wizard Knight after reading the series, and probably bored the pants off my readership through repeated references to it thereafter, but the fact of the matter is that great books sometimes have that effect - and these are genuinely Great Books. From my Goodreads reviews:

(The Knight) I read this almost 20 years ago and liked it, but second time around it has grown immeasurably in the telling, possibly because a middle-aged man can see within it themes which a younger man ignores or rejects. It is very much a tale about men and manhood, and I suspect quite alienating to female readers as a result, but there's nothing really wrong with that (I've got no problem with books being written by women for women) - and what it has to say about the subject is extremely important, counter-cultural and profound. 

(The Wizard) I am thoroughly prepared to accept that the first Act of this novel is too long and at times tortuous. This probably means I should give it less than 5 stars. But in a way the difficulty of that section is almost worth it for the emotional payoff of what comes after. Wolfe here achieves that rarest of things in contemporary fiction: a genuinely happy ending (who has the guts to try to write one of those these days?) that is thoroughly convincing and satisfying. In this respect, it reminded me a lot of TH White's The Ill-Made Knight, to which it makes an excellent companion piece.

3. Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich. I am a huge fan of Alexievich's work but nothing could prepare me for the emotional body blow that comes from reading this book for the first time. Simply a retelling, in their own words, of the stories of people who had been children in the Soviet Union (chiefly Belarus) at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1941, it contains the full gamut of human experience across the spectrum - the depths of sorrow and despair, and the glory of hope and love, and all that lies between. An amazing, 'Best Books of a Lifetime" contender. From my Goodreads review:

The less said about some books the better, because they cannot be improved by another's words - only diminished. This is indeed the philosophy underlying all of Alexievich's work: that other people's stories must speak for themselves and could only be made worse by inserting the interviewer's perspective. This, in any case, is an unspeakably moving book - suffering on every page, but also survival and redemption. It made me understand the human condition better for having read it.

4. The Inheritors by William Golding. The short, terrible, horrifying, and disturbing tale of the meeting between a group of neanderthals and a group of homo sapiens, and of the passing away of one world and its replacement with the next. Somebody recommended in the comments to an entry on this blog that I should read this, and I'm very glad they did (it might even have been this guy); it changed my perspective on what fiction could be. From my Goodreads review:

A great novel will make you understand human nature better, and in a different way. This novel is very great, because it does this with stark purity by forcing us to confront humanity from the outside, as it would be perceived by minds that are not our own. This is an achievement that truly merits being labelled a work of genius. That it is also a work of great lyrical beauty and terrible tragedy makes that achievement more unlikely, and more impressive still.

5. Now We Are Six by A A Milne. Is this cheating? I suppose it might be cheating. But I deeply enjoyed the experience of reading the poems in this collection to my eldest child, over and over again, during the course of the year. To the adult ear there is something truly magical about the rhythms and cadences of Milne's; one rarely ever reads poetry nowadays, really, and when one does one tends to read pretentious and impenetrable stuff like Pablo Neruda or free verse like Raymond Carver. Milne set himself an altogether different task: picking a meter (sometimes quite a complex one), sticking strictly to it, and communicating clearly and effectively - and beautifully - while doing so. This is enough to inspire one to try it oneself. From my Goodreads review:

These poems must be read out loud (ideally to one's son or daughter) in order to appreciate the sonorous cadences of AA Milne's verse. Things have changed in the last 100 years; what was expected of the reader in terms of poetic literacy were much higher in 1927, and some of the rhyme structures and rhythms strike the modern ear as genuinely complex. This makes the book all the more useful in communicating to a child the beauty of the English language deployed well.


A funny year, in retrospect, in that I read almost no SF or fantasy (Gene Wolfe excepted, and unless you count The Inheritors), and read very few books that really had me properly hooked - I noted down quite a few two- and three-star reviews. But the ones that I loved, I really loved. 

Do feel free to leave your own lists in the comments - I can never have enough recommendations for good reading material.