I’ve seen a number of people listing things like their top ten books of the decade or their favourite films of the decade. I’m not going to do that for the simple reason that there is still a full year to go before the end of the decade. However, this is my list of the books I read this year, and, pleasingly, in the last few hours of the old year I managed to finish number 70. As ever, the ones I recommend are in bold:
1: The Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe – reviewed for Interzone. There is so much essential stuff here: ‘The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories’, ‘The Death of Dr Island’, ‘The Eyeflash Miracles’, ‘The Hero as Werwolf’ and, of course, ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’. All of which, and many others, appeared before we knew anything about The Book of the New Sun. Strangely, after the New Sun appeared his short fiction continued at the same frequency but notably declined in quality.
2: Psychological methods to sell should be destroyed by Robert Freeman Wexler- a chapbook of surreal stories also reviewed for Interzone.
3: Journey into Space by Toby Litt – yet another book reviewed for Interzone, and an absolutely charming work.
4: H.G. Wells’s Fin de Siecle edited by John S. Partington – reviewed for SF Studies. Yet another book about Wells that complains of the dearth of books about Wells. The very best piece here examines why Wells’s work was critically mauled by the modernists and makes a strong case for a critical re-evaluation of what he was doing. There are good pieces also on some of his social comedies, but the essays on his sf try too hard to express their adherence to Theory and end up saying nothing useful or interesting about Wells himself.
5: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I’ve read a lot of history this year, but this account of the relationship between the romantic imagination and the development of science in the time of Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy is easily the best, an absolutely rivetting work.
6: The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl – reviewed for SF Site.
7: Critical Practice by Catherine Belsey, a slim volume that forms part of my on-going autodidactic efforts to understand Theory, mostly useful as a broad outline and an introduction to some names I will pursue elsewhere.
8: Drood by Dan Simmons.
9: Northwest of Earth by C.L. Moore – reviewed for SF Site.
10: Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers: This is fairly early Sayers, I think, and one in which the emphasis is clearly on the detection and less on the social setting. Certainly the location, an artists colony on the west coast of Scotland, really doesn’t allow Sayers to say much about anything more broadly relevant, whereas the plotting, though it starts with an illogicality, is ingenious and engaging. Not by any means my favourite Sayers, but it suited the occasion.
11: The Voice of the Heart by G. Peter Winnington – reviewed for Science Fiction Studies. A book length study of the work of Mervyn Peake covering not just his novels but also the plays and illustrations. An interesting thematic approach, considering Peake’s work metaphor by metaphor, draws extraordinary attention to Peake’s inability to present any sort of meaningful relationship between his characters (symbollically he sees people as islands, rocky and isolated, and any relationship took place in the depths of the ocean between islands), and also explains something of why I’ve never really got on with his work.
12: The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros – reviewed for Strange Horizons.
13: Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth – which I wrote about here.
14: Making an Elephant: Writing from Within by Graham Swift – which I wrote about here.
15: Best American Fantasy 2008 edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer – reviewed for SF Site.
16: This is not a game by Walter Jon Williams – reviewed for Vector.
17: Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow – reviewed for SF Site.
18: Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery. I really expected (hoped) to like this book a lot more than I did, but what we end up wth is a sort of superannuated hippy view of America that I thought we’d got beyond twenty years ago. You know you’ve got problems if a novel is set in the near future yet its most recent cultural reference is from 1974.
19: Half a Crown by Jo Walton. I was hoping for something as tight as Farthing but it comes across as thin, and with the sort of contrived happy ending that I saw coming a mile off and didn’t believe for one moment.
20: The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr – reviewed for SF Site.
21: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod. A deserving winner of the Clarke and Campbell Awards.
22: UFO in her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo – reviewed for SF Site.
23: Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross. On the Hugo shortlist, though I’m not sure why.
24: Canary Fever by John Clute – reviewed for Interzone.
25: Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessey. This looks like it should be a social history of the period (there’s a picture of Roger Bannister on the cover, for instance) but it is actually a political history. One chapter only deals with everything from literature and the movies to sport and recreation, every other chapter concerns the workings of the various Conservative governments of the period. I discovered a lot of very interesting stuff in here, but it is slow going.
26: Reading Science Fiction edited by James Gunn, Marleen Barr and Matthew Candelaria – reviewed for SF Site.
27: Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald – reviewed for SF Site.
28: The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway. Harkaway and I were fellow guests at the BSFA/SFF AGM, so I felt I should read his novel, and I’m glad I did. It is sprawling, prone to coincidence, and out of control a lot of the time, but it is also vigorous and great fun.
29: The Patriot Witch by C.C. Finlay – along with its two sequels, this was reviewed for Strange Horizons.
30: A Spell for the Revolution by C.C. Finlay – see above.
31: The Failure of Certain Charms by Gordon Henry Jr. I met Gordon during his recent tour of the UK and felt I’d like to read some of his poetry, excellent stuff full of fascinating and at times haunting repeated images from Native American life.
32: The Demon Redcoat by C.C. Finlay – see above.
33: The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science by Frank McConnell – reviewed for SF Site.
34: Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore – reviewed for SF Site.
36: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, another book I re-read in order to write an entry for a reference book. After all these years and any number of re-readings, it still stands up remarkably well.
37: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi. Another novel on the Hugo list, it’s clever, sentimental, and again I’ve no idea what it’s doing on the shortlist.
38: The Fire in the Stone by Nicholas Ruddick – reviewed for Foundation. If not for Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s book, this would easily have been the best non-fiction of the year.
39: Distances by Vandana Singh. A beautifully written novella, but I found myself curiously unmoved and unconvinced by the story it was trying to tell. Still worth it for the prose, which is lovely.
40: The City and the City by China Mieville. The best science fiction of the year for me because of the way it plays with the intellectual idea of the border as heterotopia, even if the plotting is somewhat less convincing.
41: Four Freedoms by John Crowley, which I wrote about here.
42: The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black. I’m a great fan of John Banville, but some day I really must try to do a comparison between his prose as Banville and his prose as Black, which is tighter, faster, but still as atmospheric. As a thriller this is odd and not a little unsatisfactory, as a novel it is intriguing.
43: The New Uncanny edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page – reviewed for Strange Horizons.
44: Nebula Awards Showcase 2009 edited by Ellen Datlow – reviewed for SF Site.
45: Transition by Iain Banks – reviewed for Interzone. It’s by Banks, so you know it’s pacy, entertaining, and features a fair helping of gruesome comedy. But the plot is an almighty mess that doesn’t come close to beginning to make sense. And why this slipped out without the ‘M’ in the UK is beyond me.
46: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I re-read this because I’m contributing to a book on film adaptations. Well the film doesn’t hold up as well as I remember, but the novel certainly does. This has to be one of the greatest of all sf tragedies.
47: The Inter-Galactic Playground by Farah Mendlesohn – reviewed for Vector. A critical study of sf for children and young adults, though it is at its liveliest where it is a polemical attack on some of the assumptions made about children’s fiction generally.
48: The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman. Naive, ill-structured, poorly written, this was the worst book of the year for me.
49: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, another book re-read because of that book on film adaptations.
50: The Infinities by John Banville – reviewed for New York Review of Science Fiction. This is Banville’s first novel under his own name since taking on the personna of Benjamin Black (see above). I wrote about the book here.
51: William Golding: The Man Who Wrote The Lord of the Flies by John Carey. I’ve already noted this one here; it’s a superb literary biography, a model of its kind.
52: Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman – reviewed for SF Site. My novel of the year, though I suspect it is a work people will admire rather than love.
53: The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster. Re-read for an essay I needed to write for a reference book. This is still one of my favourites among Auster’s novels, perhaps because (along with The Brooklyn Follies) it’s one of the most humane books he’s written. And I would love to see the silent comedies by Hector Mann that he describes.
54: The American Epic Novel in the Late Twentieth Century by W. Gilbert Adair – reviewed for Science Fiction Studies. First of all: W. Gilbert Adair is not the novelist Gilbert Adair, which is perhaps a pity. Secondly, this is a book that doesn’t even bother to explain two of the key terms from its own title: Super-Genre and Imperial State. Thirdly, this is a study of four big novels from the1970s, including Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany; the close reading of the four books contains some interesting (though not always convincing) stuff, but Adair really does nothing to say why these particular books were chosen (other than their size) or what might link them. In other words, it is a book that significantly fails to do what it says on the cover.
55: On Joanna Russ edited by Farah Mendlesohn – reviewed for SF Site.
56: The Prestige by Christopher Priest. Another re-read for the film adaptations book. This is the first time I’ve re-read the novel since I saw the film, and it brings home to you how much the film and the book differ, and yet how true they are to each other.
57: When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett. My fascination with recent British history brings me up to the 1970s, a decade I remember all too clearly. Beckett’s one sentence reference to the Protestant Workers’ Strike in Northern Ireland reminds me all too easily of reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason by candlelight while studying for my finals. As history, it is interesting simply because so much of what it covers was stuff I lived through and remember. As a history book it is perhaps less satisfactory because it is about 30% journalism: many of the key players in the decade are still alive (or were when Beckett was researching the book) and rather too much of the book is taken up with descriptions of going to visit them, what they are like now, the character of their homes, and so forth. I don’t think this provides quite the context for judging the decade that Beckett reckons it does.
58: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. I have a rather tentative relationship with Conrad. There is no author I have started to read and given up on more than Conrad, including this novel which I first tried to read probably in the 1960s. Revisiting it now, I don’t really see why I had so much trouble, except that the prose is rather denser than my usual taste and the story, for all its colour and exotic locale, is remarkably slow moving. I enjoyed it more the further I got into it, with the final section where Jim gains redemption but loses his life, the best of all for my money.
59: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton. Another re-read for the film adaptations book, I wrote about it here.
60: Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov – reviewed for New York Review of Science Fiction. A slick sf thriller that was rather too mechanically structured for my taste.
61: Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak which inspired some thoughts here.
62: White Ravens by Owen Sheers – reviewed for Strange Horizons along with …
63: The Ninth Wave by Russell Celyn Jones. Two retellings of the Mabinogion (the second and first branches respectively), clever for what they do but I have my doubts about how well they stand as individual works, though I continue to be delighted by Sheers as a prose stylist.
64: The American Future by Simon Schama. This is not so much history as polemic, generally well done if a little chaotic in places. Interesting to read a view of American history that differs from what we tend to learn over here, a work that argues consistently that the most persistent and fundamental forces that have gone to build America have been discrimination, racism, religious bigotry, class distinctions and a fundamental resistance to democracy that becomes more overt the more democracy itself is trumpeted as the spirit of America.
65: Avilion by Robert Holdstock – reviewed for SF Site. On the day I picked this book up to read for this review I learned of Rob’s death, which made this perhaps the most difficult review I have ever had to write. It helps that this is a good book, a worthy closure to the Mythago cycle.
66: Austerity Britain 1945-51 by David Kynaston. I’ve been reading this book, off and on, for most of the year. Fascinating to read a history that deals far less with the politics of the period and far more with what people were buying in the shops, what radio programmes they listened to, how they responded to the birth of the NHS, the nature of housing and town planning, the day to day experience of ordinary workers, and so on.
67: Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley. The sequel to The Quiet War, which was one of the best novels of 2008. If this feels a little less focussed, if the drama is more dissipated, it is still a fascinating and evocative account of what it might be like to live among the outer planets.
68: Invisible by Paul Auster. After the relative misfires of his last two novels, this is a return to form. A promising student in the late 1960s gets involved with a strange Frenchman and his sexy girlfriend. The Frenchman promises money for a magazine, but as the student is drawn into their circle there is a sudden act of violence, which affects the future of all three of them. The novel is constructed as three chapters describing the events and their aftermath written by the student and compiled posthumously by a novelist friend, but at the same time we are encouraged to question the veracity of the account. Not a particularly groundbreaking novel from Auster, but well done, engaging and interesting.
69: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow. Doctorow’s fictionalised take on the story of the reclusive Collyer brothers extends their lives by some 20-odd years, but otherwise does a really convincing job of getting inside their strange little world. The narrator is Homer, the blind brother, and they live a conventional wealthy life on Fifth Avenue until their parents die in the flu pandemic following the First World War and Langley returns physically and mentally changed by the experience of the trenches. Slowly their horizons shrink while Langley falls prey to a succession of obsessions and a variety of visitors from prohibition-era gangsters to 1960s hippies invade their home. I’ve always been a fan of Doctorow’s work, but this is one of his best.
70: Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd. An ex-pat returns to London and almost immediately falls in with a stranger who passes on a piece of vital information but is then brutally murdered. The ex-pat finds he has to go on the run with the police, the murderer and the sinister organisation that arranged the murder after him. Yes, this is the plot of The Thirty-Nine Steps, it is also the plot of Ordinary Thunderstorms (which I think is a dreadful title, by the way). In this instance our ex-pat, Adam, doesn’t flee to Scotland but starts living rough in London where he gradually moves through the underbelly of society. As a thriller I found it efficient but fairly routine, but part way through I realised it was also a howl of outrage about the malign effect of money on every level of our society. It is, in other words, a state of the nation, credit crunch novel that doesn’t mention banking once. How else to write about how money shapes and destroys loyalties, relationships, families, moralities than by creating a hero who has no money? As long as it does this, it is a superb novel, but when the thriller plot reasserts itself towards the end in order to tie off all the loose ends, it becomes weaker once more.
First published at LiveJournal, 1 January 2010.