CategoryGrimwood Ken

2009 favourites

It’s been a good year for reading, watching and listening, I think; so here’s a look at my favourite books, movies and music of 2009.

BOOKS

Here are my favourite books whose first publication was in 2009, with links to my reviews. (NB. The order isn’t meant to be too strict; all these books are warmly recommended.)

1. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

My favourite book of 2009 is an extraordinary work of literature which examines the masks people wear and the shows people put on in life, against the background of a school scandal. Catton doesn’t put a foot wrong, and the result is a novel that’s both highly experimental and compulsively readable.

2. Keith Brooke, The Accord

Brooke is, in my opinion, a vastly under-appreciated writer; this story of a virtual afterlife is the best of his works that I’ve read. The Accord works on so many levels: as a novel of ideas, as a novel of character, as a thriller, as an experiment in style… It’s a heady concoction that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

3. Rana Dasgupta, Solo

An elderly Bulgarian man looks back on his life in the first half of this novel, then dreams of a new life for an old friend in the second. A beautifully written, richly rewarding book.

4. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

At the behest of Stalin, a group of science fiction writers dream up an outlandish enemy for communism, and discover that the truth is uncomfortably close. Enormous fun, and a feast for the imagination.

5. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

A powerful fairytale about the difficulty of looking life in the eye, and the possible consequences of not doing so. A deserved co-winner of the World Fantasy Award.

6. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

A deeply atmospheric detective story whose heart beats with a unique strangeness.

7. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide

A mosaic portrait of a father’s suicide, with a strong sense of place and a sharp eye for character. A unique work of literature.

8. Conrad Williams, One

Williams evokes the profound horror of apocalypse whilst maintaining an intensely personal focus. Harrowing, but powerful.

9. A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds

Twenty-six individually bound portraits of what-if. The most beautifully made book of the year, with stories to match.

10. Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

A quiet, insightful tale of silence between fathers and sons, and the consequences of leaving things unspoken.

11. China Miéville, The City & the City

A murder mystery set in overlapping cities, and a fascinating fusion of fantasy and crime fiction.

12. Trevor Byrne, Ghosts and Lightning

A young man returns to Dublin after the death of his mother, and struggles to anchor his life. Well written and nicely observed.

And the best from previous years…

Ken Grimwood, Replay (1986)

A perfectly constructed and beautifully observed tale of a life lived over and over again in different ways. This is an absolute jewel of a book which I am enormously glad to have read this year.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

A marvellous coming-of-age (or beginnings thereof) story told in a brilliantly realised voice. A page-turner of depth and richness.

FILMS

Though I didn’t intend it to happen, I got somewhat out of the habit of watching films in the latter half of 2009, so my view of the cinematic year is a bit skewed. But my favourite film from 2009 was a brilliant British fantasy called Franklyn; and, from previous years, I was most impressed by Once and Hard Candy — both excellent films, though very different in mood.

MUSIC

Instead of picking out albums, I’ll present a list of some of the best songs that sountracked my year (though not all originate from 2009); but, if it’s on here, you can (in most cases) consider it a recommendation for the relevant album:

Bat for Lashes, ‘Daniel’ [review]
Doves, ‘Kingdom of Rust’
The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ [review]
Florence and the Machine, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ [review]
Franz Ferdinand, ‘Ulysses’ [review]
Friendly Fires, ‘Paris’ [review]
Glasvegas, ‘Flowers and Football Tops’ [review]
Lisa Hannigan, ‘I Don’t Know’ [review]
Charlotte Hatherley, ‘White’
The Invisible, ‘London Girl’ [review]
La Roux, ‘Bulletproof’ [review]
The Leisure Society, ‘The Last of the Melting Snow’ [review]
Little Boots, ‘New in Town’ [review]
The Phantom Band, ‘The Howling’
Snow Patrol, ‘Just Say Yes’ [review]
Stornoway, ‘Zorbing’
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ [review]
Sweet Billy Pilgrim, ‘Kalypso’ [review]
The Temper Trap, ‘Sweet Disposition’
White Lies, ‘Death’ [review]
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Zero’

So, that was 2009. I hope that 2010 holds as much to look forward to.

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

Jeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twenty-five years. He has the chance to create a better life for himself, and Jeff seizes the opportunity with gusto, placing bets and making investments that leave him a very wealthy young man. Jeff makes a hash of trying to impress his old wife this time around, and isn’t really keen on the heiress he eventually partners; but Jeff does love Gretchen, the daughter resulting from that relationship. So Jeff has pretty much made it — until he reaches the age of 43, dies at exactly the same moment, and returns to 1963, with the previous quarter-century erased from all reality, except in Jeff’s own memories.

And so the cycle repeats, with Jeff living out his life anew, able to remember each iteration but not to make any lasting change — until, in one ‘replay’ (as Jeff calls these iterations), the anomaly of a blockbuster movie he’s never heard of before leads Jeff to Pamela Phillips, the film’s maker and a fellow replayer. Perhaps inevitably, as the only two who know (or could ever understand) what the other is going through, they fall in love. But they discover a pressing issue: the beginnings of each replay are becoming ‘skewed’; though the moment of death for both Jeff and Pamela remains the same, the time their awarenesses return to is growing later and later — so much so that they may only have a handful of replays left.

I came to Replay with a certain amount of anticipation: it won the World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series a few years ago, so clearly it had a high reputation. There was also the general sense of apprehension one often has on reading a ‘classic’ (even one that’s only twenty years old), wondering if it will stand the tests of time and of familiarity with its themes. Well, there was no need to be concerned this time — Replay is a wonderful book that deserves all the praise it has been given.

It’s important to say first what Replay is and isn’t about: it’s a time travel story, but not one about time travel per se; Grimwood attempts no real explanation of why the replays are happening. Rather, he is much more interested in the emotional ramifications of the premise on his characters, and it’s here that the novel really shines. Each replay is different, as Jeff chooses different paths through his life; and these never feel arbitrary — there’s a logic to their progression. He starts off, as one might in his situation, using his knowledge of the future to improve his lot materially. Then he moves to trying (unsuccessfully) to change history for the better; learning from his first replay to create greater contentment in his second; descending into hedonistic nihilism in the third when it becomes clear that nothing he does will last; and so on. And it rings true at every stage.

The interplay between Jeff and Pamela also changes subtly each time they meet, as their different experiences change them; and this too remains believeable throughout. There’s a moment towards the end that particularly made me smile (I’ll not elaborate on it, to preserve the effect), when Pamela reacts to Jeff in a way he isn’t expecting; and, as readers, we can see the matter from both sides — and have sympathy for both characters. The final position of the protagonists’ relationship is also unexpected and yet, with hindsight, is probably just as it would be in reality. It’s this emotional authenticity that makes Replay such a joy to read.

Something else that makes Replay a joy is the way it’s written — not so much individual nuggets of prose (though it has its share of them, such as the passage describing what goes through Jeff’s mind as he dies for the first time), as the way the novel is structured, and its general tone. There are a few times when the book gets tedious (Jeff’s hedonistic period drags in particular); but, generally, Grimwood knows exactly when to throw something new into the mix to move the story forward, whether it’s Jeff’s discovery of other replayers, or… well, find out for yourself. There’s also a very welcome lightness of tone to the book — not an absence of seriousness, but an energy to the telling. One useful function of this is to stop this moral tale feeling too preachy. There were a few a moments when I felt that Grimwood-the-author was lecturing me-the-reader, but they are few; even the ending, with its moral of ‘make the most of the life you have’, doesn’t really feel didactic, because the story has made the case for that viewpoint so persuasively.

Apparently Grimwood was working on a sequel to Replay when he died (at the sadly young age of 59). I’m ambivalent towards the idea of a second book: on the one hand, if he could have made it as good as this, I would love to find out what he had planned. On the other hand, Replay is fine as it is, needs no embellishments, and deservedly puts its author’s name down in history as one of the greats. Replay was not the first text to examine the question ‘what if you could live your life again?’, and it certainly wasn’t the last — but, in its elegance and eloquence, it must surely be one of the best.

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