So, in the end, I just made my personal target of 60 books this year. This is the complete list, those that I rate among the best of the year I’ve put in bold.
#1: Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray – which I wrote about here.
#2: Rewired edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#3: Zeroville by Steve Erickson – which I wrote about here.
#4: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology edited by Sheila Williams – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#5: Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell – I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
#6: Dust by Elizabeth Bear – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#7: Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor – which I wrote about here.
#8: The New Weird edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer – I reviewed this for SF Site, which turned out to be one of the more controversial reviews I’ve written, mostly because American readers unfailingly took the word ‘propaganda’ as entirely negative and could not seem to recognise that it can be used neutrally, as it was intended and as most European readers seemed to take it. Hearteningly, after what was initially a rather strained exchanged, Jeff Vandermeer wrote that he had re-read the review and now appreciated what I was saying.
#9: My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban – which I wrote about here.
#10: How to Read a Poem by Terry Eagleton – which I wrote about here.
#11: Brasyl by Ian McDonald – about which I said: Okay, I understand what all the fuss was about and I think it was perverse that it didn’t make the Clarke shortlist, but I still think River of Gods was the better book, mostly because I don’t think the three stories that make up this volume are all of equal weight, and they don’t merge enough for the stronger ones to carry the weaker.
#12: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2007: Twentieth Annual Collection edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#13: Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini – about which I wrote: I’ve been working my way through this book for most of the last year.It is dense and slow, but fascinating and worth the effort. An extraordinary history of something we talk about freely without ever defining. It seems that the intellectual, in whichever country you are in, is always a phenomenon associated with somewhere else. It is also something we tend to denigrate, as if we are generally afraid of any show of intelligence.
#14: Swiftly by Adam Roberts – I reviewed this for Interzone, and was also part of a discussion about the book at Torque Control with Niall Harrison, Victoria Hoyle and Dan Hartland.
#15: His Illegal Self by Peter Carey – which I wrote about here.
#16: The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright – which I wrote about here.
#17: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers – about which I wrote: This is the only one of Sayers’s novels I’ve read before I started working my way through them recently, it was back in my teenage years when I was deeply into crime fiction, and I found it a tremendous disappointment. Now I understand why, it is barely a crime novel at all. That is just the excuse for a novel about the social consequences of the First World War, which is fascinating but not what I expected back then.
#18: The Invention of Dr Cake by Andrew Motion – which I wrote about here.
#19: The Best of Lucius Shepard by Lucius Shepard – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#20: Omega by Christopher Evans – I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
#21: Escapement by Jay Lake – I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
#22: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow – I reviewed this for Interzone and also used it as the basis for this bookslut column.
#23: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#24: Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#25: Why Aren’t They Here? The Question of Life on Other Worlds by Surendra Verma – a pop-science book that touches all the familiar bases but doesn’t add anything new, reviewed for Vector.
#26: The Translator by John Crowley – I re-read this for a paper I gave at the SFRA Conference, and that will hopefully turn into a chapter for a forthcoming book.
#27: Never Had It So Good by Dominic Sandbrook – which I wrote about here.
#28: Wit’s End by Karen Joy Fowler – about which I wrote: Karen is a fellow guest at SFRA, so I suppose there’s an extraneous reason for reading her new novel now, but in fact I would have read it anyway since she is one of the handful of writers whose new books I will try to read as soon as I get my hands on them. This well lives up to expectations, a novel informed by the acute but often oblique wit that was such a feature of The Jane Austen Book Club, and filled with the same critique of women as communal beings that is to be found in everything she writes. I’ve noticed, for example, that there is practically never a single narrative viewpoint in her work, the reader is always forced to assume a communal perspective. Hmm, I must pursue this idea further.
#29: The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers – about which I wrote: Continuing my belated encounter with Lord Peter Wimsey. The first time I ever went into a bell loft in a church I remember being scared of the beasts, and I realised as I read the book that the fear must have sprung from an early encounter with this story, perhaps an old TV adaptation because I’m pretty sure I’ve not read the novel before. In some ways this is the most and the least satisfying of her novels that I’ve read to date. The most satisfying because the mystery element is more intriguing and plays a larger part in the story than the others I’ve read. Least satisfying because what has fascinated me about Sayers is that the crime is usually just a vehicle for a novel about some aspect of contemporary life, and the novelistic aspects of The Nine Tailors really isn’t very strong. There are observations about the nature of rural life and the influence of the church, but these seem pallid compared to, say, the observations on advertising in Murder Must Advertise.
#30: The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont – about which I wrote: Why have I not seen anyone else talking about this novel? It came out a couple of years ago, and I think went straight to paperback in the UK, but it fits in exactly with the sort of updated pulp adventure like Carter Beats the Devil that have otherwise got quite a bit of attention. And Malmont’s novel should be on every sf fan’s reading list because key actors in the drama are L. Ron Hubbard, Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Robert A. Heinlein, with an important walk-on part for E.E. Doc Smith. It’s the mid-1930s and one of the top pulp writers of the day, Walter Gibson, creator of ‘The Shadow’, is entertaining wannabe writer Hubbard with the story of a real-life murder mystery in Chinatown. Gibson’s rival, Lester Dent, creator of ‘Doc Savage’, interrupts, then sets out to solve the actual mystery. Meanwhile, Gibson, with Hubbard in tow, is summoned to Providence for the funeral of H.P. Lovecraft, where he discovers that Lovecraft may actually have been murdered. His investigations lead him to a massive conspiracy involving Chinese Nationalists, and dovetail with Dent’s adventure. The result is pure pulp, complete with overblown action, mysterious strangers, coincidences galore, hairs-breadth escapes, but it is tremendous fun,and is written with a great deal of knowledge and respect for the heyday of the pulps. And it mystifies me that no-one else seems to have noticed this book.
#31: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon – about which I wrote: Years ago I was asked to review a bunch of first novels by American writers. The pick of the bunch was a novel called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and I was struck even then by a mainstream novel that made so many casual references to sf and to the pulps. Still, I didn’t pay too much attention, and the next time I read anything by the author it was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and I found myself going around saying someone should be inviting this guy to sf conventions because he was clearly one of us. Well now there’s a collection of essays, book reviews, talks and the like to emphasise the point. He talks passionately about comics and popular culture, argues intently for the collapse of distinctions between high art and popular art, is clearly incredibly knowledgeable about sf, and is revealing about the origins of his own novels. I still have half a mind to blog the individual pieces in this book because there’s so much interesting stuff to engage with. That will have to wait until other pressures ease a little, but I won’t say more here … But I never did get around to that. Maybe another time.
#32: Year’s Best Fantasy 8 edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer – I reviewed this for Interzone.
#33: The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu – I reviewed this for Fruitless Recursion.
#34: The Magic by Christopher Priest – I read this in preparation for an interview at the BSFA, then went on to review it for Vector.
#35: Conversation Hearts by John Crowley – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#36: Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn – I was commissioned to write a 1,500-word review for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, I wrote a 3,000-word review, they’ve since come back and asked me to expand it to a 5,000-word review-essay. Still working on it.
#37: Eclipse One edited by Jonathan Strahan – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#38: Matter by Iain M. Banks – I reviewed this for the SFRA Review.
#39: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod – I reviewed this for Vector.
#40: The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories by John Kessel – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#41: White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook – which I wrote about here.
#42: Ubik by Philip K. Dick – re-read in preparation for …
#43: Ubik: The Screenplay by Philip K. Dick – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#44: Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley – I reviewed this for Fruitless Recursion.
#46: Multireal by David Louis Edelman – I reviewed this at SF Site.
#47: Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn – I reviewed this for the New York Review of Science Fiction.
#49: An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe – I reviewed this for Foundation.
#50: Shadows of the New Sun edited by Peter Wright – I reviewed this for SF Studies.
#51: The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#52: Incandescence by Greg Egan – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#53: The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs – I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
#54: Of Wind and Sand by Sylvie Berard – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#55: The Quiet War by Paul McAuley – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#56: The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak – I reviewed this for SF Site.
#57: A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr – very much a journalist’s history, it is very readable and has an eye for the telling anecdote. At the same time, you can tell Marr is a political journalist because that is where his interest increasingly lies. His coverage of the 50s and 60s includes a great deal on the social history, but this aspect of the story virtually disappears from the 1970s onwards. For instance, Live Aid is mentioned only in his discussion of Life8, and that is in the book only because of the connection with the G8 conference at Gleneagles, which takes up far more space. In fact, from the Winter of Discontent all the way up to the ousting of Tony Blair, virtually everything that appears in the book is taken from the front pages of the political heavyweight newspapers. An interesting book nonetheless.
#58: Spirit, or The Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones – I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
#59: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black – this is the first of the novels John Banville has written under a pseudonym. I am a great fan of Banville’s writing, so I was very hesitant about reading this because I’m not sure how well his allusive, etiolated prose style is suited to a basic crime story plot. In fact, the book is excellent, the flavour of Banville’s best work is retained, but with rather more drive than usual. It is a fascinating account of the seamier side of Dublin life at the beginning of the 1950s.
#60: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd – this book got very so-so reviews, particularly from sf sources, but I’m not sure why. Certainly, Ackroyd hasn’t written a really great novel since Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, and one or two of the books he’s written since then (Milton in America, The Plato Papers) have been absolutely dire. But last year’s The Fall of Troy marked something of a return to form, and this new novel definitely continues the trend. For a start, he takes on another literary voice, which is something he has done in all his best work; and it is primarily set in London, and at a very specific time, which is also a feature of his best work. This is a very self-aware novel, consciously drawing on the connection between the romantic movement at the beginning of the 19th century and the development of science, so one aspect of the novel is about the way that Frankenstein’s work springs directly from the literary and political interests of Shelley, Byron, Polidori and, of course, Mary Shelley, all of whom appear in the novel. Alongside this, Ackroyd examines the psychological aspects of the Frankenstein myth, particularly the way that writers like James Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde) developed the idea of the Frankenstein creature as a double. The result is maybe not Ackroyd at his absolute best, but it is still a fascinating and very satisfying work.
#61: Man in the Dark by Paul Auster – Auster’s work increasingly seems to be turning in on itself, repeating themes or characters or situations that have cropped up in earlier books. The alternate history tale within a tale, the man trapped at the bottom of a hole, the fascination with film, the author writing himself into existence, all have cropped up in previous novel’s by Auster. And, as in a number of his shorter books, there is a sense of someone trapped within a very narrow compass either of space (the bare room in Travels in the Scriptorum) or, as here, of time (it all takes place in the compass of a single sleepless night). The trouble with this iteration is that it doesn’t seem to take us anywhere fresh, and also the embedded tale within a tale reaches no conclusion and indeed seems to be forgotten about two-thirds of the way through the book.
#62: The Lemur by Benjamin Black – Banville’s latest pseudonymous novel is also the shortest thing he’s done since The Newton Letter. It is a murder mystery set in contemporary New York, a former journalist is hired to write the biography of his father-in-law, a former CIA operative and multimillionaire philanthropist, but the researcher he hires is murdered, which opens up murky aspects of the past. Not quite as good, I think, as Christine Falls, in part because the past that informs the present is not as vividly realised, and also because the protagonist is essentially inactive, clues come to him rather than him going out and finding them. Nevertheless, I’ll certainly be keeping up with Benjamin Black from now on.
So, of 62 books, 37 were read for review (at this moment I am still waiting for 10 of the reviews to actually appear), 11 were short story collections, 12 were non-fiction. I’ve written around 95,000 words during the year, which is a good-sized book – and let’s not forget that during the year my own book, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, was published.
First published at LiveJournal, 31 December 2008.