Book of the year 2018

DTRH 2

Yes, folks, it’s that time again: the year is drawing to a close and so I must select my favourite books of the year.

But I fear I must begin with an apology. I have simply not read enough. All was going swimmingly until I moved house, leaving the comforting bosom of the job in and around of which I did most of my reading. Thus we have been operating in dribs and drabs ever since.

We will have to treat the future on its own merits. For now, though, let us look back at the books I have enjoyed over the last twelvemonth and see if we can’t scrape some sort of purpose out of the whole hideous morass.

Blimey, I’ve encountered some superb books this year. So many, in fact, that I’m not going to choose a simple ‘best’. Instead I’m going to give a few of my favourites.
So, in no particular order:

Fiction:

The Honours – Tim Clare

The Honours

Tim does occasional novel-opening-critiques on his excellent podcast so I decided to turn the tables and do the same right back to him (in my mind only) when reading this. That attempt lasted less than a page before I was lost in his beautiful world. I originally wrote about this in this blog-post. It’s simply a wonderful book that I dare not tell too much about for fear of dispelling the mystery of what the hell this is actually about.

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Vanishing Box

If you want to write a crime novel, read Elly Griffiths. I mean, seriously. The plotting is just so good; the way she gives her characters depth – just enough so you think you can see a way through to the murderer; just enough in each scene to make you think ‘no, hang on, maybe I was wrong’. In every scene.

Elly’s novels aren’t always perfectly realised. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t work as well for me, for example, and I wasn’t too sold on The Dark Angel (though this again contained magnificent character development; in fact, if I was writing a how-to book I’d probably start right here). But part of the fun of Griffiths’ books lies in the relationships between the main characters. And The Vanishing Box is perfect.

Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

QoaC

Rod Duncan: lovely man, drinker of black tea and dreamer of dark waters. Here he takes his story of the Gas-Lit Empire out across the ocean and shows us that the world we thought we’d got to grips with is not only full of stories but full of stories we’d never even imagined possible. Like the star-cruiser* at the beginning of Star Wars you suddenly realise that what we thought was the big picture was merely docking bay.

Britain is only a small island trapped between sea and continent. And the seas themselves can harbour as many monsters as ever walked on land. Elizabeth Barnabus is on the hunt for her best friend, last seen on a zeppelin that was shot down somewhere in the Atlantic. Might she have survived? Who fired the shot?

The next in the series is out in January. I can’t wait.

*I have no doubt this craft has a proper name that you’ll no doubt be eager to share with me. You all know the one I mean though, right? If not, insert mental image of the opening credits of Red Dwarf.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

If I have a criticism of Adam Roberts – and I do – it’s that he’s more interested in ideas than stories. Thus we have we literal people-with-no-heads in Land of the Headless; we have the ‘what-does-animal-rights-truly-mean?’ of Bête. And the oh-God-it’s-the-very-nature-of-reality of The Thing Itself.

By Light Alone has a similarly high concept. Genetic modification has enabled people to ‘eat’ sunlight directly through their hair. So only the rich eat ‘real’ food and flaunt baldness whilst the poor are a tidal mass threatening to bring the whole edifice to the ground. This novel scores by having a very human story at its heart: a rich man’s world comes tumbling down when his daughter is abducted. And then, a year later, comes back into his life.

But is she all that she seems? And does it really matter when their world seems doomed anyway?

Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

Shadow

The first volume in the Book of the New Sun quadrilogy, this is… weird. On the face of it, we’re dealing with a traditional high fantasy epic. But the further we progress, accompanying Severian on his journey to a distant city, the more we come to realise that we’re part of a different story altogether.

This series has been hugely influential; Neil Gaiman, for one, has written of its power, and it regularly features is lists of the best SFF novels ever. It’s not the easiest read – not because of any flaws but because it requires the reader to work; we are so deeply embedded in Severian’s mind that he doesn’t see the need to explain the many sudden ‘wait, what?’ moments.

It is, in short, something that rewards reading and rereading. And possibly doctoral theses.

The Doomed City – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Doomed City

Well now, just about everything I said about Shadow of the Torturer applies here. Weird? Check. Doctoral theses? Check. Challenging? Check. Hidden from the Communists? Che- no, wait. That only belongs to this novel, the origins of which are almost as interesting as the story itself. Long story short: originally writing in the early seventies with writer-brothers who knew it would never pass Soviet censors. Only two copies existed, hidden carefully in friends’ apartments, until 1989 when publishing restrictions were lifted.

The city of the title is the key figure in the story. It is an impossible place, complete with moving buildings and a sun that switches on and off. It’s populated by people taken from different periods in history (or at least the 20th century). We follow Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad. At the start of the story he is idealistic and naïve. Then, after a fascist coup, he becomes careless, almost cold. It is significant that one of the most important characters is Jewish.

The climax shows an exhibition to cross the no-man’s land beyond the city’s edge – to find out, in essence, where they are and why they’re there. It’s a complex novel, difficult and full of ideas. Anyone who’s seen the (very good) film Dark City will see The Doomed City’s influence.

It’s begging for a sequel, and for that reason should never be given one.

Caveat emptor. There are very few women in the novel and those that are there (Andrei’s wife, notably) are treated horribly. Also antisemitism, though this is part of the plot.

Godblind – Anna Stephens

Godblind

This is another wonderful, powerful novel that can only really be described as grimdark fantasy – Lord of the Rings with feeling – but dares also give us love.

A spoonful of love helps the horror really hit home.

Warring gods and their pawns on earth; corruption and unbelievable cruelty. The ingredients are nothing new, but Stephens gives them urgency and passion and serves up probably the most convincing battlefield I’ve ever read.

The most sickening thing is that this is her debut. Makes you spit, really.

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

the-wasp-factory

Don’t read this. I mean please, just don’t do it to yourself.

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderfully written. This horribly damaged narrator in his horribly damaged life is so utterly, utterly convincing. The banality with which he talk of the things he’s done – brilliant.

Also horrible. Caveat. There aren’t enough caveats in the world.

Thornhill – P Smy

Thornhill

Another I wrote about previously, this is a YA book that mixes a story told through diary entries intercut with a wordless graphic novel. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun

Aha! The one that’s going to win all the awards. Revenant Gun is the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series that began with Ninefox Gambit. The whole series takes our ideas of space opera and blows them up with malice aforethought.

Some people will find the detail of exotic physics* and mathematical arcana dull. Some also won’t like the genderqueerness of – well, just about everything. That’s fine. I loved it and felt it really underpinned the structure of the previous novels.

These are game-changing books and worthy of your time whether, ultimately, you like them or not.

*Magic, but interesting

Rogues – GRR Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds)

Rogues

I’m not a big short-story reader and this is the first time an anthology has appeared in my ‘best of’ lists. But I feel I have to include this here because not only did it take FOREVER to get through but because it was a consistent delight. The 21 stories are all based around the morally dubious. Most are great fun.

As is the nature of these things, some (Gaiman’s ‘How the Marquis got his Coat Back’ for one) I’d read before. Some are better than others.

Personal favourites:

‘Bad Brass’; Bradley Denton (though one Amazon reviewer rates this as one of the worst in the collection, which just goes to show)

‘Tough Times All Over’; Joe Abercrombie

‘Now Showing’; Connie Willis (another story the other reviewer disliked)
‘A Year and a Day in Old Theradane’; Scott Lynch.

Worst story:

‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’; GRR Martin. This isn’t a story. It’s a list of things that happened. As far as I can see, no reviewer liked this one.

Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

Embers of War.jpg

Space opera done well. I could go on at length about the ethical questions that Powell raises, at the universe he’s created, and at the depths he gives his characters – all of whom have carefully drawn backstories that never get in the way of the here-and-now. I could say all this, but all you really need to know is that he’s created a sentient warship called Trouble Dog. And that she’s one of the best AIs ever created.

Volume two coming in 2019. Can’t wait.

Also Recommended:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark

Non-Fiction:

Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman

Daemon

A collection of essays mostly on writing and occasionally on Pullman’s personal philosophy. There’s a huge amount to glean from this, especially if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials. It delves into the role of story in life; in education, in religion and science. Very interesting, though, in truth, I can’t actually remember much about it now.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – D Adam

Man who couldn't stop

Well this is just fascinating. On the face of it it’s simply the memoir of a man’s struggle to understand and overcome his own obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what it really serves to do is to make us look at our own behaviours and reevaluate our drives and urges.

Wonderfully written; lyrical and elegant, this is one of the best examinations of mental illness that I’ve ever read. Really, really not just for sufferers and really, really not a misery memoir; humour and sly wit underpin even the darkest episodes.

Liable to Floods – JR Ravensdale

Liable to Floods

This isn’t so much a recommendation – not unless you’re interested in the history of three villages on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fen.

Or maybe that’s not true. There is a great deal for the novelist here – if you’re interested in the way mediaeval (or fantastic) settlement and survival, floods and fires, you could do a lot worse than this.

Either way, it’s elegantly written and, even if it’s now out of date, deserves its place here.

How to Read Literature – Terry Eagleton

Read Literature

I have been flattered that Eagleton’s writing style is not a million miles from this blog. Well, maybe. Still this is a lovely book, clearly written and full of wit. It is a book about literature and I suspect its main audience will be university students; it’s slightly highfalutin’ for the likes of me.

Still, anything that makes you reevaluate all you thought you knew about popular texts is worth reading. Eagleton makes it easy. And his reinterpretation of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as a socialist manifesto will live long in the memory.

Graphic Novel:

Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga 6

Second year in a row. Read the last ‘Best of’ for more; but, simply put, this remains unique; a wonderful jewel buried under a mountain of superheroes. The sheer imaginative power that can create Prince Robot and Lying Cat, and have a ghost as a major character, is incredible. And that’s just the surface.

Wonderful stuff

* * *

And that’s it, apart from all the books I’ve forgotten. Please share your own personal favourites; I’m always looking for new authors, or even new opinions.

Have a wonderful holiday, all you lucky folk who get such a thing. I’ll be back in 2019 with more dubious knowledge and half-baked theories.

If you’re interested, check out my previous years’ Best of lists here:

2017
2016
2015

Book of the Year 2016

books

It’s that time of the year again: a chance to reflect on all the wonderful books I’ve read in what has been a pretty scary twelve-month. Reading has rarely provided a more welcome retreat from a world that’s rarely seemed more chaotic or terrifying.

So, without further ramblage, here’s a short selection of my favourite books of the year. Apart from the ‘Discovery’ choice, all have been published (in the UK) in 2016. Which brings me to my first confession: I’ve not read that many new books this year. Casting a quick eye over my book log I see that 2016 has been a year of catching up with books I missed on first release; books I always meant to read but never quite caught.

Book of the Year:

 Custodian of Marvels; Rod Duncan

It’s been a year of sequels. Sorry about that. But the sequels I’ve read have been top quality and none more so than this.

The Custodian of Marvels is the third book in the Elizabeth Barnabus series, and is that rare thing: a follow-up that surpasses the original. In (and beyond) the richly-drawn lands of the Gas-Lit Empire we see an alternative world that is neither utopia nor dystopia but plausible and fulfilling. Almost every scene tells us more about about both characters (and Elizabeth Barnabus is a wonderful creation) and society. A mention should also be given to the dwarf Fabulo, who enriches every scene he’s in.

Also, I’ve shared the odd Twitter-word with Mr Duncan and he’s a lovely man. Makes me want to live in Leicester.

Honourable mentions:

 The Murder of Mary Russell; Laurie R. King

Book #14 in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, this is a triumphant return to form after the slightly disappointing Dreaming Spies. It explores the history of Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson, giving one of Conan Doyle’s minor characters the depth and resonance she previously lacked.

I’ve read the whole series and, to me, King’s books are the closest you can get to the continuation of the Holmes canon. The characters are so well drawn, so plausible; they take the ‘afterlife’ of Holmes into new – but totally believable – directions.

The Woman in Blue; Elly Griffiths

I started reading Elly Griffiths because this crime series (Ruth Galloway; this is #8) is set in Norfolk, a county I still think of as home. I was immediately struck by the use of the present tense, which I found slightly jarring at first but now want to try out for myself.

This might be the best of the series; a wonderful setting (the holy village of Walsingham) and great supporting characters. But the real joy is the growth and awkwardness in the relationships between the central characters: adultery, confusion, the sheer humanity of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. It’s utterly convincing.

And there’s a murder in there too. What more can we ask for?

Best Dr Who

 Shadow in the Glass; Justin Richards & Stephen Cole

Okay, so the 6th Doctor is probably my least favourite. His personality grates. Add in Hitler and the myths around his death (yawn?) and there are all the recipes for a disaster here. And yet…

A great ‘assistant’. Real horror. A proper kick-in-the-teeth ending. Somehow this novel really works. This is Doctor Who stepping a toe firmly into nightmare – and getting it absolutely right.

Best Graphic Novel: also Best Non-Fiction

The Trouble With Women; Jacky Fleming

Hilarious. Horrifying. Dripping with cynicism. This is one of those books that you read and then think ‘who can I give this to?’

To say too much about this would be to spoil it. Read it. Laugh. Learn.

And then get angry.

Best Short:

The Summer People; Kelly Link

Well. This is a bit of an oddity. I got a free copy of this from a Twitter-based giveaway; the publishers said ‘anyone want one?’ and I put my hand up just because you can never get enough books.

And it’s really good. Written with delicacy and grace, the borders between reality and fantasy slowly disintegrate. Gothic, fairytale, coming-of-age; it’s amazing how much this packs it in such a short read. This is just one of those books you finish saying ‘Yes. That just felt right.’

Best Discovery

This is my section to explore my favourite reads that weren’t published in 2016: that I somehow missed and have crawled back to, tail between the legs.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Admission: I’d never heard of Scalzi until he started appearing in my Twitter-feed. Enough times was he retweeted for me to get a sense that he was worth hunting down.

I could talk at length about the story, but what really struck me was the simple quality of his writing. His novels move with real pace it’s amazing how he manages to pack in such depth – in character, in world, and with such humour. I always admire writers who can get wit into their stories as it’s a trick I’ve never managed to pull off.

This is how Twitter works, folks. Don’t just shout about your work. Be human. Be nice. The readers will come.

Discovery Mentions:

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ah, charity booksales. Where would we be without them? This is where I get to pick up things I’ve heard of and think I should read. Occasionally you get gems.

This is a long book that feels much shorter because the writing flows so freely. The topic – religion and obsession – and setting (12th century England) are heavy but Follett makes them look easy. As you might have guessed, I love books that hide the hard work behind smooth writing. This deserves the respect it’s garnered since its release.

Ack-Ack Macaque; Gareth Powell

I’d heard vague rumours of this and took it on a punt. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much. Monkeys and Nazis. Humour and silliness: at best I was anticipating a fun adventure.

It’s a lot more than this. It’s a steampunk-inspired story with surprising heart. There’s a lot to it: the future of artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and real depth of character. There’s a lot to make you think, a lot of deep philosophy carefully contained in – yes – a fun action-adventure. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

*          *          *

And that, good people, is that. Another year done. Another year of wonderful books, most of which have probably passed me by and slipped off into the ether.

I hope it’s been a magnificent year for you and yours. See you in January for more book-based banter and writerly witterings. Just remember: as those most bodacious philosophers Bill S. Preston esquire & Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan entreated us, be excellent to each other.