I managed to read 85 books in 2011, which is quite a few more than in any year I can remember since, probably, my late teens or early 20s. The list is behind the cut, of course, with those I particularly recommend in bold, and an asterisk (*) beside my top ten books of the year.
1: Angelica Lost and Found by Russell Hoban, which I wrote about here.
2: * How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, one of the most intellectually exciting and engaging novels I’ve read in a long time. If you haven’t yet read it, go away and do so now. Science Fiction often works by rather obvious metaphors, but in this novel you can read it as either one very cleverly sustained metaphor, or you can read the events as real, and the book works equally well both ways. In fact the ability to switch mentally back and forth between a real and a metaphorical reading of the book is one of its great delights.
3: Elegy for April by Benjamin Black, which prompted this post.
4: Sunset Park by Paul Auster, which I wrote about here.
6: State of Emergency by Dominic Sandbrook, the third of his massive histories covering Britain from the mid-50s. This volume is devoted to the Heath government, 1970-74, and he seems rather more prepared to give Heath the benefit of the doubt than most other commentators I’ve read. Not so long ago I read Andy Beckett’s book on the same period, but while Beckett was better at the set-pieces, I got far more sense of context from Sandbrook. Perhaps because Beckett’s book was primarily a work of journalism, Sandbrook’s clearly a work of history. It’s curious, during the years in question I was at university in Northern Ireland and remember the time vividly; Sandbrook was only conceived during the blackouts of 1974. For me this is contemporary, for Sandbrook it is history; a strange feeling.
7: One by David Karp, reviewed for SF Site.
8: C by Tom McCarthy, which I wrote about as part of the Big Other’s book club here.
9: Zendegi by Greg Egan. I always feel with Egan that the surface is glittering and intricate and brilliant, but I can never feel my way to any depth below the surface. This is sentimental, in a way that made me feel manipulated, but everything is foreordained, moves along precisely laid out lines and never achieves anything that might pass for dramatic surprise. I must also say that, for a novel set in Teheran, I felt far less sense of place than I did, for instance, with Istanbul in The Dervish House.
10: The Anatomy of Utopia by Karoly Pinter, reviewed at SF Site
11: The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod, a novel that has one tremendous coup de theatre that comes about three quarters of the way through the novel. But this should have been the start of the story, and MacLeod uses it to close the story off. Up to this point it has been a fairly routine tale of an ordinary person getting caught up in dirty intelligence work. Disappointing.
12: All the Lives he Led by Frederik Pohl, another disappointment, this one reviewed for Strange Horizons.
13: Life on Mars edited by Jonathan Strahan, a YA anthology that I reviewed for Bull Spec.
14: New Model Army by Adam Roberts, which prompted this post at Big Other.
15: Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig, which prompted this post at Big Other.
16: Starbound by Joe Haldeman, a perfectly competent piece of heartland sf that reads like a good writer who can’t really be bothered to come up with anything fresh any more.
17: * Kentauros by Gregory Feeley, a marvellous combination of essays and short stories that I reviewed at Requited.
18: This Shared Dream by Kathleen Ann Goonan – the sequel to In War Times, which I reviewed for The New York Review of Science Fiction.
19: Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller, which I reviewed at Strange Horizons.
20: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes – there was an article about this book in the Guardian which made it sound interesting, and I remembered we actually had a copy on our shelves. It is interesting, but in a curious way. The first part is a fascinating meditation on photography that partly inspired this post at Big Other; the second part revolves around the death of his mother and is, frankly, bonkers. But I’m glad I read it.
21: The Immortalization Commission by John Gray – another interesting but bonkers book. Gray looks at ways the scientific community got involved in ideas about life after death. The first part of the book deals with the Society for Psychical Research in late Victorian and Edwardian England, and in particular exercises in automatic writing. There is a large cast of Victorian intellectuals, including eminent scientists and a prime minister (Balfour), though the cast isn’t really all that large since there seems to have been intermarriage and other family ties between the members of the group. The second part looks at Soviet science in the early years of the new regime, in particular focussing upon the embalming of Lenin which seemed to reflect a genuine belief that he might at some point be restored to life, and upon the curious figure of Moura Budberg who was at the same time the mistress of Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells and also, by various accounts, a KGB agent. It’s a broken-backed book, the two halves never really cohere, and also Gray doesn’t seem at all clear what sort of book he is writing, at times journalism, popular biography, general political and scientific history, and fairly heavyweight philosophical argument (far and away the best part of the book). For all that, it is a book that always holds the interest, and there are some fascinating arguments about the relationship between science and religion, and about the nature of belief, that are casually dropped in along the way.
22: The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder, which I wrote about at Big Other.
23: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear, a very familiar sort of hard sf, there isn’t an incident that you won’t recognise from somewhere else, but quite nicely done in its way.
24: Among Others by Jo Walton, reviewed for SF Site. At the time I read it, I was sure this would feature in my best of the year, but somehow I find my estimate of the book has declined in memory.
25: Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle, also reviewed for SF Site.
27: Embassytown by China Miéville, reviewed for Interzone. Like the Walton, a novel that, at the time, I was sure I would rate higher.
28: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s years since I read any Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I’d start with the great man’s first appearance in this short novel, novella really, though it actually gives us no more of Holmes than we find in many of the short stories, and the structure of the novel is, to say the least, awkward, with the long interlude in Utah stuck clumsily in the middle.
29: Declare by Tim Powers, an overlong, over-fussy book. Powers is blatantly doing a Le Carre (he steals Le Carre’s reference to Moscow Central, every other spy writer I know, and all the non-fiction (including Philby’s My Secret War, which I first read many years ago) refers rather to Dzerzhinsky Street, and most of the tradecraft is also taken directly from Le Carre’s books), but unlike Le Carre, the line of story is not clear and straightforward. If he cut out about 200 pages and at least two of the plot strands, this would be a much better novel.
30: The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle. My reading of the Holmes canon continues.
31: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, re-read and reviewed for Vector.
32: Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 edited by Kevin J. Anderson, reviewed for Foundation.
33: The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 27th Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, reviewed for Foundation.
34: * The Universe of Things by Gwyneth Jones, reviewed at SF Site.
35: Welcome to the Greenhouse edited by Gordon van Gelder, reviewed at SF Site.
36: Visions of Mars edited by Hendrix, Slusser and Rabkin, reviewed at SF Site.
37: * The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein. A new novel by Goldstein has been long overdue, and this is a real treat.
38: The Thirties by Juliet Gardiner, which partly inspired this post at Big Other.
40: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle which inspired this post at Big Other.
41: Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift which I talked about at Big Other.
42: * The Islanders by Christopher Priest, quite simply the best novel of the year. I reviewed it for LA Review of Books, though the review has yet to appear.
43: * Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm by John Clute, which I argued with in a review for Vector.
44: The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, which I reviewed for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.
46: Amazing Adult Fantasy by A.D. Jameson which I reviewed at SF Site.
48: * Osama by Lavie Tidhar, which I reviewed for Bull Spec.
49: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
50: The Great Night by Chris Adrian which I reviewed at Strange Horizons
51: Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham, the first Allingham I’ve read and a great introduction to her work.
52: A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman, a superb history of the American Civil War from a British perspective, that is, it deals primarily with the diplomacy between the countries, though it also includes the many British nationals who founght on either side, and the stories of the Confederate raiders built in Britain.
53: Troika by Alistair Reynolds, which I reviewed at SF Site.
54: * The Silver Wind by Nina Allan, a collection of time stories that is greater than the sum of its parts, which I reviewed for Interzone.
55: Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham, my second Albert Campion novel.
56: The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock edited by Donald E. Morse and Kalman Matolcsy, which I reviewed for SF Site.
57: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan, possibly the worst book by Egan that I have so far read, reviewed for Bull Spec.
58: The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham which prompted this post at Big Other.
59: Wind Angels by Leigh Kennedy, at last, a new collection, though after reading it I discovered that the proof copy I’d been sent did not include all the stories, and they were not arranged in the correct order, so I am going to have to revisit the book before I write my review for Foundation.
60: Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton, which I included in my round-up review for the Telegraph.
61: A Life in Pictures by Alasdair Gray, just a wonderful collection of his pictures arranged in something that loosely resembles an autobiography.
62: The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.
63: In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood, which I reviewed for the Telegraph.
64: The Judges of the Secret Court by David Stacton, which I wrote about at Big Other.
65: The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth, which I wrote about at Big Other.
66: Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders, essentially a history of shopping, entertainment and daily life in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
67: The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge, I reviewed this book and interviewed Vinge for Bull Spec.
68: Watergate by Thomas Mallon, not officially published until February. I’ve no idea why I got a copy so early, but since Mallon is one of my favourite historical novelists, I was heartily pleased to read it. I might still write an essay about it sometime soon.
69: A Short History of the Future by R.C. Churchill, which I am still intending to write about here.
70: Home Fires by Gene Wolfe, reviewed for Foundation.
71: The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz by Jules Verne, reviewed at SF Site.
72: In the Lion’s Mouth by Michael Flynn, reviewed for Interzone.
73: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, a novel I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and a very strange piece of work it is.
74: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, which inspired this post at Big Other.
75: Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies by Lucy Sussex, reviewed for SF Site.
76: Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin Smith, reviewed for Vector.
77: Millennium People by J.G. Ballard reviewed at SF Site.
78: * After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, reviewed for Strange Horizons.
79: The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo, which I wrote about at Big Other.
80: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, which I wrote about at Big Other.
81: The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode, which inspired this post at Big Other.
82: Snow by Orhan Pamuk, an extraordinary piece of work, though ev en now, a week or so later, I’m not entirely sure what I make of it.
83: The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle, which is really just barely a Sherlock Holmes novel.
84: * A Man of Parts by David Lodge, which I wrote about at Big Other.
85: A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black, Black is becoming more and more like Banville; this is a novel that is all about silences, things unsaid, inchoate feelings. Wonderful stuff.