Best Books of 2017

Cat and books

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.

Best non-fiction

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.

Also recommended:

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.

Best Classic

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!

Best Short

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.

* * *

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.

The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman

old-iron

I first came across this book when I was seven, or thereabouts, whilst visiting one of my father’s friends. Having learnt to love books – and being bored by the grown-ups’ conversation – I cast around for something to do and set my grubby little paws upon this.

I can’t say for sure, but I think I’d recognised the author from the Father Christmas and Fungus the Bogeyman stories that were family favourites. This, however, is not a children’s book. Though deliberately written to ape the simplistic style of a kid’s picture book, it predates authors like Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman and Shigeru Mizuki who, more famously, used the graphic format to convey adult themes.

This is a book that I have never, ever forgotten. So, when I saw a copy at my local donkey sanctuary bookstall I had to pick it up.

It tells the story of the Falklands War. The Tin-Pot General is Galtieri. The Old Iron Lady is Thatcher. They’re depicted as monstrous grotesques like this…

briggs-3

And this…

briggs-2

But mixed in with the lunacy of these giant figures you get this…

briggs-1

Child-like manner-of-fact prose that states simple truth. Beautiful, haunting and – for me at least – unforgettable.

There are criticisms to level at it too. Perhaps the work is too simplistic. Is Thatcher as bad as Galtieri? I say this as a committed Leftie who regards Thatcher as a society-destroying vandal. But at least she didn’t head a murderous, corrupt regime responsible for the torture and ‘disappearance’ of 9,000-30,000 of its own citizens. The Falkland Islanders wanted/want to be British. And, as the conflict slips back into the footnotes of history, does the story have a real anti-war message or is the story too specific to that one incident?

Nevertheless, I’m writing this now because the emotions that I felt when reading this as a child have never gone away. Few books have as much power as this. It is a work to make me fall in love with reading all over again, to remind me that creativity will always find new ways to express itself.

I can’t say how glad I am to finally have it in my possession.

The books of 2015

It’s been an odd year for reading. I’ve never tried to write a review blog because my tastes are so eclectic – or even disordered – that I’ve no idea to whom such a page would appeal. And I’ve enough on my plate ensuring my own writing is kosher to worry about assessing other people’s.

But the year’s end is rapidly approaching and, in the absence of anything better to write about, here’s my five favourite novels published (in the UK) this year, chosen from the rather limited, biased and random selection on my book log. I hope you – or if not you then someone somewhere – will find it interesting.

Book of the Year:

Uprooted; Naomi Novik

Let’s begin at the top. Uprooted takes all the tropes of fairytales – the deep, dark wood; the sorcerer in the lonely tower; the rural, isolated community; the darkness in the forest – and spins them into something unique and special. Its heart lies in eastern European folk-tales but its perspective is – for a mediaeval world – refreshingly modern. Feminist, even. Novik shows she’s not a one-trick pony (her Temeraire novels have long been favourites) with a story that manages to feel both totally original and eternal.

Also in the mix:

Ancillary Mercy; Ann Leckie

The last in the Ancillary series, this is a book I admire intensely rather than really love. Put simply, it’s new. It’s different. In some ways it feels more like classic 60s sci-fi than modern space-opera (Andre Norton is the name that springs to mind); but it’s subject – multiple bodies, artificial intelligence, split personalities) are right up to date. Begin at the beginning – and hope for further entries in the series.

Haterz; James Goss

Dark, witty, and with a lot to say about the new internet world, this had a lot of buzz when first released and very much deserves its acclaim. A murderer is manipulated into eliminating internet trolls. Mischievously misanthropic without being over-cynical or devoid of hope; and with amusing caricatures of certain ‘popular’ figures who you secretly wish were treated as they are in this novel

The Annihilation Score; Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Laundry files are the missing link between Cthulu, James Bond and PG Wodehouse. Arcane bureaucracy, technomancy, demons and violins – all delivered with wit and flair. Very British and very much fun

Unseemly Science; Rod Duncan

This world of semi-steampunk and half-suffrage is real and delightful and ominous and – yes – full of great characters. Elizabeth Barnabus, in her life masquerading as her fictional brother, is a great protagonist with a great deal to lose. I’m already looking forwards to the next entry in the series

Best Dr Who:

The Drosten’s Curse; AL Kennedy

Fizzing with energy and with a lightness of touch, this is simply a book to make you smile. I read criticism saying this lacked a real sense of peril: that maybe true. But that just allows the fourth Doctor more time to be himself – erratic, irreverent, larger than life. Simply a joy

Best Goodbye:

The Shepherd’s Crown; Terry Pratchett

Ah, Terry. Never shall we see your like again. And ah, Granny. And Tiffany. And the Nac Mac Feegle. This is glorious.

In truth, The Shepherd’s Crown is flawed and doesn’t stand up with the rest of PTerry’s books. It’s half-finished. There isn’t a real sense of danger; it doesn’t quite deliver an emotional hook (except that which the reader brings in themselves). It’s too simple and doesn’t quite fly.

But it’s Terry Pratchett’s last novel. The writing is, as ever, something to drown in. Another draft and this would have been perfect. As it is, this is more than just one last cash-in. It’s the truth of a truer world than the one in which we all live.

Best Graphic Novel:

Rat Queens; Wiebe, K et al

Joyous! Joyous, I tell you. It’s nice to read a work that has no intention other than to entertain. A great parody of po-faced fantasy tropes, and specifically the D&D world of warriors, mages, clerics and thieves: of halflings and orcs and ogres, with a side-order of Cthuluality. It also has a character who chugs magic mushrooms like sweeties. What more do you need?

Best Non-Fiction:

The Greatest Knight; Asbridge, T

Best non-fiction is tricky; I feel I’ve slipped a little on my reading, and there’s only a few that have been published this year. I’m still picking up random selections from the last decade – mostly about the writing craft – and the history and popular science sections of my local (rubbish) library have provided slim pickings. This, then, is simply the book I enjoyed most and remember best of that small pool. A biography of William Marshal, the 12th-13th century knight who served five kings from tournament glory to civil war. A fine read and a fascinating subject.

Discoveries of the Year:

In terms of the books that weren’t released this year – but that I’ve only just caught up with – my biggest discoveries were Hugh Howey’s Wool series and Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. A special non-fiction nod goes out to Harari’s Sapiens, a book so good that I’ve also bought it for my wife and father (not the same person).

And that’s it. I know I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I must now crawl back to my Editorium before the clock strikes Holiday. I doubt we’ll be seeing any more bloggery from me until 2016, so let me just wish you all the happiest of happy times – whatever and wherever and with whomsoever – and I’ll catch you all in the new year.

Happy reading!