Well, that was a strange year. We are currently living in what used to be called genteel poverty, which means we’ve got just about enough money to live on but not much more than that. So we’ve not been seen around as much as we might like, and we’ve missed out on a lot of things that everyone else takes for granted but that have suddenly become luxuries. Hopefully, things will get better, but probably not for a couple of years. Meanwhile, we keep reading and writing, and every so often someone might notice what we do though more often than not they don’t.
Primarily, for me, this has been the year of Iain Banks. Which means that most of my reading has been research for the book; that is, re-reading all of his science fiction, dipping into a number of others, spending a lot of time reading interviews and essays and reviews and other stuff. Making notes, and then writing the notes up. The first draft of the book is done, revisions will follow any day now, and with luck the whole thing will be going off to the publisher around the end of January.
All of which has meant that I haven’t written as much as usual (I deliberately cut back on the number of reviews I write), though I still managed to produce well over 50,000 words of reviews and columns and essays, in addition to the book.
It has also meant that I haven’t finished as many books as usual, since my reading has been otherwise directed. 50 books in a year is the lowest total I’ve achieved for a very long time, probably for a matter of decades. Still, here’s the usual list, and as ever those I particularly rate are in bold.
1: Brazil by Paul McAuley
2: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Andrew M. Butler
3: Solaris by Mark Bould
4: Silent Running by Mark Kermode
5: Dr. Strangelove by Peter Kramer
6: Akira by Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell
These six are monographs on films published by the BFI that I reviewed for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.
7: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory: a competent, entertaining novella, but rather mechanical in its structure, I was pretty well aware of which way it was going to go all the way through the story.
8: Echopraxia by Peter Watts: a sequel to the highly-acclaimed Blindsight, but I found this volume confusing, contrived, full of coincidences and not at all convincing.
9: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, which I reviewed at Strange Horizons.
10: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: a refreshing take on the alien invasion story, told with a vigour that still leaves a few rough edges but which I found very enjoyable.
11: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress: a variant on the alien invasion that wasn’t at all refreshing; I found this laboured and unconvincing all the way through.
12: Poems, Peoms and Other Atrocities by Garry Kilworth & Robert Holdstock
13: Poems by Iain Banks & Ken MacLeod
There’s a curious synergy between these two books, which I reviewed for Foundation: an author dies, a friend and fellow author collects together the poems they had written and produces a joint anthology. In each case the living author is slightly the better poet, but the interest is inevitably on the dead author. Both collections are revealing and well worth reading.
14: Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59 by David Kynaston: my interest in recent British history continues unabated, and Kynaston’s survey of what people were recording in their diaries, watching on TV, reading in the papers and so on provides a fascinating insight into a period I vaguely remember myself.
15: Afterparty by Daryl Gregory: one of the novels I read as part f my Campbell Award reading, and one I would have been comfortable with it winning.
16: The Peripheral by William Gibson: I’m not sure why this seems to divide readers so much, I’ve seen it described as terrible and as brilliant; I incline rather to the latter.
17: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: the Hugo winner, and probably deservedly so since it was clearly the best of the books on the shortlist, though it was really nowhere near the best book of the year.
18: Where by Kit Reed, which I reviewed for Interzone.
19: Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 by David Kynaston: there is a point early in this volume when Kynaston talks of the coloured South African cricketer Basil D’Olivera being brought to Britain by John Arlott to play for Middleton. That ground was only a few hundred yards from my childhood home, I was taken there to see this famous player. We watched one day of cricket, I don’t remember if Dolly actually stepped out onto the pitch that day, I only remember being unutterably bored. But it seems I was there for a little part of history. It was strange to cme across that in the book.
20: Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
21: Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks: research.
22: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: one of my books of the year, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons.
23: The American Shore by Samuel R. Delany, which I reviewed for Extrapolation, and as usual with Delany’s criticism, the review was mostly argument.
24: Family Britain: 1951-57 by David Kynaston: somehow I had missed this intermediate volume; glad I caught up.
25: Vintage Visions edited by Arthur B. Evans, which I reviewed for Extrapolation.
26: Excession by Iain M. Banks: research.
27: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, which I wrote about here.
28: Inversions by Iain M. Banks: research.
29: Vitus Dreams by Adam Craig: an experimental novel that I picked up on holiday in Wales, interesting and exasperating at the same time.
30: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks: research.
31: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney: the second time I’ve read it; a stunning version that works brilliantly when read aloud.
32: Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson: another of my books of the year, which I reviewed for Vector.
33: Slade House by David Mitchell, which I reviewed at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
34: Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography by Rodge Glass: on Facebook I described it as “as disordered a book as Gray is a person. It doesn’t tell us much more about the life before Lanark than we found out in A Life In Pictures, so the most interesting parts are the day by day accounts of when the two were working together, and those sections are as much about Glass as they are about Gray. An interesting book, but not really the biography we might expect.”
35: Amnesia by Peter Carey: this is the best of his novels I’ve read for some time.
36: The Double Image by Helen MacInnes, which I wrote about here.
37: More Work for the Undertaker by Margery Allingham, which I wrote about here.
38: Sweet Caress by William Boyd: like a version of Any Human Heart, in which the story of the century is given through the eyes of an artist; in this case the artist is a photographer, which means found pictures are interpolated throughout the text like Jack Finney’s Time And Again. A nice book, not his best but better than a few of his recent novels.
39: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, which I reviewed for Interzone.
40: The Blue Guitar by John Banville: supposedly set in the same alternate history as The Infinities, but the setting doesn’t impinge on the story in any way. Fairly typical Banville when he’s not firing on all cylinders.
41: The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks by Simone Caroti: a worthwhile survey, but the author is too in love with his subject.
42: Arcadia by Iain Pears, which I reviewed at Strange Horizons.
43: The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
44: Transition by Iain Banks
45: Matter by Iain M. Banks
46: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
47: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks: research
48: Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald: I suspect this will appear on a few award ballots, but I have my doubts. It is half a novel rather than the first novel in a sequence, everything is left on a cliffhanger; for me, the portrait of life on the moon doesn’t quite have the texture of River of Gods or The Dervish House; and it takes a long time to get going. Having said all that, it is still a thrilling read.
49: Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: a new collection of stories. I’m going to be reviewing this for Strange Horizons, but for now I’ll just say that I continue to believe that Millhauser is the best and most underrated fantasist writing in America today.
50: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: it’s an allegory not a fantasy, and we seem to have forgotten how to read allegories. But it is beautifully rendered, powerful and unforgettable. In the aftermath of war there is forgetting, which is good since it brings a measure of peace; but it is bad because it destroys history (the past is the buried giant of the title). If no one remembers, then everyone remakes the world constantly. No two characters in the book see the same things; and something that is tentative at one moment has become fixed by the next. The story is a journey towards death, but with death comes remembering. There is so much going on in this novel it is impossible to summarise it in brief, but it is a glorious piece of work.