Happy 2018 y’all! Sorry it’s delayed, but I was in hospital just before Christmas. But now I’m back and exactly the same as ever. And, without further ado, it’s time for…
The Best Books of 2017!
…but not before a quick note. In previous years I’ve limited my choices to books released in the year in question. I’ve now decided to abandon this policy as I really don’t read enough brand new books. Maybe in the future I’ll be invited to all the great publishers’ pre-release parties, but at the moment I’m still picking up the crumbs in my own sweet time and at my own expense. I’ll still use 2017-ness as a tiebreaker – I’ll favour newer works – but it won’t be a prerequisite. That okay?
So, without further ado, here is my
Book of the year 2017
The Stone Sky: NK Jemisin
…and we start straight away with a cheat because I’m really meaning the whole ‘Broken Earth’ series, not just this, the final volume. But my blog, my rules.
If you’ve not come across this series before, a quick précis: this is the multi-award-winning story that breaks rules with an almost spiteful joy. Large chunks in second person? Why not. War crimes committed by the hero? Yes please. Combining sci-fi and fantasy in a way that takes it beyond both? Oh, go on then.
The simple fact is that it’s brilliant. The writing and the world-creation are masterful. It’s one of those rare books that makes you re-examine your own writing and asks you why you’re holding back. And then demands you go and check out Jemisin’s entire back catalogue.
Other excellent reads:
Ninefox Gambit: Yoon Ha Lee
This is the other book that everyone’s going on about. The sequel to Raven Strategem, this takes us further into the world of exotic maths, religious heresy and giant space moths. Like Jemisin’s work (and Ann Leckie), this redefines how we think about science-fiction.
The truth is, though, I was all prepared to be disappointed. The lead character of the first book seemed to be missing and without her I felt loss, both on a personal level (she was great) and on the dramatic. The story needed her.
But Yoon Ha Lee rescued the game in the last third, setting up a rousing climax and a thoroughly satisfying ending.
The House of Binding Thorns: Aliette de Bodard
This is the sequel to the excellent The House of Shattered Wings in the ‘Dominions of the Fallen’ series. It works as a stand-alone novel as focus shifts from House Silverspires of House Hawthorn. Madeleine, angel-essence-addict, is the main link between the stories.
This is a novel of intrigue set in a Paris recovering from an onslaught of sorcery. The feel is Gothic, decadent and decayed, with Dragon princes, drug trafficking and fallen angels running the city like a mafia.
Beautifully balanced with characters both old and new at the forefront of the novel, this story both satisfies and tempts the reader to a third act which surely must be in the pipeline. Can’t wait.
The Collapsing Empire: John Scazi
Scalzi is a genius at introducing concepts with the minimum of fuss; of gripping you right from the start and propelling you forwards at breakneck pace. I’m not sure how he does it. I suspect he’s one of those authors whose cleverness and skill is overlooked as he makes it all look too simple. I want to break done his novels line-by-line to see how he does it.
The Collapsing Empire is as fun, fast and foul-mouthed as the rest of his work. The underlying themes, however, are about power and its abuse. To quote from this review, “Each of the main characters may be, as one puts it, ‘an asshole,’ but they are also fumbling toward having an ethical position on how to save people from impending disaster.”
You’ll read it so fast that you barely notice the pages turning.
The Delirium Brief: Charles Stross
We all know that Charles Stross is a great writer. We all know that the Laundry series on novels is a cross between Lovecraft, Fleming and Le Carre with a special dash of humour poured in for good measure. What we hadn’t seen is how dark his satirical tongue is.
The Delirium Brief is not only a great novel in itself but takes a surprisingly trenchant stance on issues such as privatisation, religion and media exposure. It follows on from The Nightmare Stacks in a way that might lose readers new to his work but magnificently raises the stakes. This is another book you’ll simply fly through and come out desperate for the next in the series.
Damnation: Peter McLean
Well this – and the whole series – is just fun. I mean really fun. Gritty urban noir with deep sarcasm and real punch. This is another book you’ll fly through – only to be shocked awake by an ending that demands the next book be read immediately. Or it would if it were out yet.
The characters are magnificent. Such a shame to see them damned all to hell.
The Essex Serpent: Sarah Perry
This was 2016’s hot ticket and I’m running a year behind. Which, to be fair, is quite good for me.
I came to this without knowledge beyond the title and its reputation. Turns out it’s a historical novel: it is, simply, a story of life the conflict between rationalism and superstition in the late nineteenth century. What sets it apart is wonderful writing and an ending that defies convention.
The female lead is unorthodox and convincing; the male foils – especially surgeon Luke Garrett – are perfectly drawn. This is a quiet novel and won’t be for everyone, but the quality of the writing alone earns itself a place here.
Glorious Angels: Justina Robson
I’ve done my best to track down all of Justina Robson’s works (Mappa Mundi in particular is worth tracking down) but in recent years she’s slipped from notice; this was released in 2015 but I only found it this year. And it’s great. A hierarchical society with women in power; ancient technologies that are used without understanding: and an archaeological dig that could cause a war.
There are more details in this review which also acts as a counterpoint to my opinions. This book, it appears, is not for everyone. Still, this is my blog, I loved it, so here it sits.
Leviathan Wakes: James SA Corey
Space opera on a grand scale; conspiracies, conflict, and a deadly alien contagion. Explosions, murder, all that stuff…
But the more time passes the less sure I am about it and I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. I could probably write a whole blog-post on it, but suffice to say that there is just something slightly… um… ‘white male’ about it that makes me a little uncomfortable. Although there are physical differences (between the inner planets and the asteroid-dwellers) that could be taken as ‘racial’ the story feels very monoculture.
What struck me, though, is that there are no homosexual characters in a novel with a large cast. More than that, none of the characters seem to have considered homosexuality a possibility. This just seemed to me bizarre. There are also criticisms of total unfettered access to information that seemed undeveloped.
So yes, this gets my recommendation and I want to read more in the series. But not unreserved praise.
Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: Ben Blatt
This is a novel of statistics. No, hang on, come back! I loved it, and, if you have an interest in books and writing, so will you. The basic premise is that you can use mathematical modelling to work out how an author constructs their books: not only their ‘favourite’ words (the titular Nabokov’s ‘mauve’, for example, or my ‘wrangling’) but the little words that can tell you whether a book was mainly constructed by a big-ticket author or by his writing ‘partner’.
The book also looks into writing ‘rules’, like whether we should really avoid adjectives and whether it really is a sin to describe the weather in the opening sentence. The only complaint is that you feel there’s so much more he could cover (Did Shakespeare really write those plays? What about my genre?) that the book feels a little short.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer: Sarah Bakewell
Philosophy. Thoroughly enjoyable philosophy at that. Montaigne was a French estate owner who dabbled in politics and diplomacy and left several volumes of thoughts about sex, farting, foreign travel and love. It’s his ordinary blokishness that shines through, ably brought to life by Sarah Bakewell and her innovative approach to his life and beliefs.
I came across Montaigne through Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which serves as a useful primer to the subject and the ways it can help you. Consider this a tiny bonus recommendationlet.
Best Graphic Novel
Saga: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I know, I know, I know. It’s hardly a surprise selection. It’s already, if Wikipedia is to be believed, won widespread critical acclaim. And I know I’m wildly out of date in only just getting round to it.
But it’s really good. The characters are beautifully rounded, the artwork sumptuous, the world (universe) convincing and just odd enough to keep us on our toes.
It’s even good enough to beat The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to top spot. And you have to be good to do that.
Best Doctor Who:
Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet: James Goss & Douglas Adams
Well this was just a blast. An old Adams script has been expertly adapted by James Goss and for a dyed-in-the-wool H2G2 fan like myself it was a dream. Full of delightfully odd characters like the Pirate Captain and his nurse, this is Adams through and through.
The parrot – sorry, the Polyphase Avatron – steals the show, though. Kudos to Goss to making a brilliant, confusing, insane story into a fantastic and coherent novel.
Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen
I know, I know. But I’d never read it before (I missed Austen week at school. I’ve not read any of the Bronte’s either) and I’ve always managed to avoid the adaptations too. I never thought I’d actually find it full of irony and dry wit.
There’s not much I can say that’s new; I’m sure you can find a line-by-line textual analysis cheap on ebay if you’re that way inclined. Let me just say that I found it much wittier and livelier than Dickens and no-one ever told me Austen was funny!
A Rare Book of Cunning Device: Aaronovitch, B
This year’s ‘Best Short’ nominees consist of two novellas, both by Ben Aaronovitch. But limited opposition does nothing to diminish the joy with which I hold the Rivers of London series.
This is a short but perfectly formed little adventurelet set in the basement of the British Library. It’s only available as audio only – which is fine by me as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is the perfect companion.
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And that’s all folks. My prize picks from an excellent year for reading. I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have, and, if you’ve read any of these, whether you agree or not.
Here’s to 2018. It’s shaping up to be another fantastically-fictational year.