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:
The Honours – Tim Clare
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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.
‘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.
‘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
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.
Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark
Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman
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
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
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
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.
Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples
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.
* * *
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: