Okay, it’s that time of the year again, when I go through everything I’ve read. Which turns out to be more than I’d anticipated, given that the first third of the year was given over to writing my book on Christopher Priest (The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, due out from Gylphi in March 2020), and the rest of the year was given over to researching my book on Brian Aldiss (due for delivery to Illinois University Press in March, but in all probability it will be sometime during the summer).
There were, indeed, a couple of times during the latter part of the year when Aldiss became a roadblock for me, and I found myself for weeks at a time unable to read anything else, and barely able to bring myself to pick up whichever Aldiss title was then working my way through. And there were extraneous stresses as well, which didn’t help. I have found myself almost frozen into immobility by Brexit, a madness from which there seems to be no escape. I’ve described this, elsewhere, as a nation collectively and eagerly committing suicide. Certainly what has been revealed about the national character by this whole charade has left me feeling that this is not my country, that I don’t belong here and I don’t want to belong here.
But enough of that! Let us turn our attention to books. I read over 70 books this year, just about the same number as I read last year, though it really does feel like more than I’ve managed for several years. And as is usually the case, the titles in bold are those I rate as the best of the year.
1: After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry – her first novel, which I wrote about on this blog.
2: The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova – a collection of extraordinary stories that I reviewed at Strange Horizons.
3: The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley – a rather wonderful short novel.
4: Melmoth by Sarah Perry – her latest novel, which I wrote about here.
5: What Not by Rose MacAulay – one of two novels I read this year that started to fill in the curious gap in British science fiction in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
6: A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia – it does some interesting things with very familiar time travel elements; an enjoyable read but not a spectacularly great novel.
7: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts – I don’t normally like Watts, at least not as much as many others seem to, but this short novel did work for me.
8: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice – set on a reservation in northern Canada where they are used to being without modern amenities, so they hardly notice when power goes down, mobile phone signals are lost and the internet disappears. It’s not a problem until white refugees start to appear. It’s a wonderful slow apocalypse, though the ending is rather too rushed for the novel’s good.
9: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller – this was the novel we gave the Campbell Memorial Award to this year, and I think it is thoroughly deserved. An excellent novel.
10: Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman – another slow apocalypse, this time centred on a tribe of bonobos at a remote zoo and their human keepers, and the cross-species collaboration that allows their survival.
11: Time Was by Ian McDonald – a lovely short novel, but it felt that it should have been longer and a little more developed.
12: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar – an alternate history novel with postmodern overtones, and though both aspects were well done I couldn’t help feeling that we’ve been there before.
13: The Rise and Fall of the British Nation by David Edgerton – not a book I want to try to sum up in a couple of sentences, but it is a revelatory account of twentieth century British history. For instance, those Brexiteers who see a return to Empire as our national salvation might care to consider the fact that when Empire was at its height during the first half of the century we had more trade with Argentina than with the Empire.
14: Big Cat and Other Stories by Gwyneth Jones – always great to see a new book from Gwyneth, but though some of the stories were excellent I was really disappointed with the title story. I reviewed the book for Strange Horizons.
15: Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith’s by Brian Aldiss – the slog begins; and I’m not going to say anything about these books here, mostly because I’m still processing.
16: The Brightfount Diaries by Brian Aldiss.
17: Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss.
18: Little by Edward Carey – a novel about Madame Tussaud in her youth that I wrote about here.
19: Space, Time and Nathaniel by Brian Aldiss.
20: Hothouse by Brian Aldiss.
21: Earthworks by Brian Aldiss.
22: Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss.
23: Greybeard by Brian Aldiss.
24: Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss.
25: The Eighty-Minute Hour by Brian Aldiss.
26: Moreau’s Other Island by Brian Aldiss.
27: Mooncranker’s Gift by Barry Unsworth – an early novel by a writer I came to value highly, though not for this novel. I wrote about it here.
28: Snare of the Hunter by Helen MacInnes – which I wrote about here.
29: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey – a clever book, told backwards and with the chapters mirroring each other, but the interesting thing is that the story survives the cleverness. Though I suspect it is a book you really need to read in as close to a single sitting as you can.
30: Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler – which I wrote about here.
31: The Great Level by Stella Tillyard – a fairly straightforward historical novel that takes us from the draining of the fens to the early days of New Amsterdam. A good but not spectacular novel.
32: Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler – not much to add to what I’ve said elsewhere about Ambler.
33: Quinn’s Book by William Kennedy – a while ago I got onto something of a jag with William Kennedy, picking up everything by him I could lay my hands on. Then, for some reason I stopped reading him. Then over the summer I picked up this novel and reminded myself all over again what a damned good writer he is.
34: The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers – a play about Aberfan that I wrote about here.
35: March Violets by Philip Kerr – the first of the Bernie Gunther novels I’ve read; there will be more.
36: HHhH by Laurent Binet – I was playing around with the idea of writing something for this blog about Nazis in fiction, picking up on this and the Philip Kerr and Eric Ambler. Somehow nothing came of it, but these are all fascinating books.
37: The Primal Urge by Brian Aldiss.
38: The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss.
39: Cryptozoic by Brian Aldiss.
40: Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss.
41: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan – which I wrote about here.
42: Cracken at Critical by Brian Aldiss.
43: Galaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian Aldiss.
44: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – which I wrote about here.
45: Starswarm by Brian Aldiss.
46: Churchill’s Wizards by Nicholas Rankin – for some reason an interest in wartime deception re-emerged at around this time, and this was the first fruit which I wrote about here.
47: The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss.
48: The Cambridge History of Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link – which I reviewed for Extrapolation.
49: Operation Fortitude by Joshua Levine – more on wartime deception, covered here.
50: The War Magician by David Fisher – the story of Jasper Maskelyne that is itself deceptive and far from what actually happened, also covered here.
51: The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams – an epic poem that links Nigerian mythology, Greek mythology and basketball, and somehow it works.
52: Hide My Eyes by Margery Allingham – which I wrote about here.
53: Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss.
54: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – is this the wickedest, sharpest, most bitterly funny of her novels. Well it’s certainly a contender for that title.
55: Horizon by Helen MacInnes – more espionage.
56: Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss.
57: The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger – an unexpected companion to Rose MacAulay’s novel, an early dystopia from the 1920s that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.
58: Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – another addition to my wartime deception library. This is probably as close as we will get to a definitive account of “The Man Who Never Was”. What strikes me in this and in the other books on this subject that I’ve read is how incompetent German intelligence was, and how lucky British intelligence was.
59: Of Me and Others by Alasdair Gray – the year ended with the terrible news of Gray’s death. This was the first of two of his books I read this year, with the expectation that there would be more to follow. And yet there is a strange sense of tidying things up and closing down in this collection, which brings together a variety of essays, including a number I’ve read before in other books.
60: Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss.
61: The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler -which I wrote about here.
62: A Romance of the Equator by Brian Aldiss.
63: Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss by Brian Aldiss.
64: Dracula Unbound by Brian Aldiss.
65: White Mars by Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose – which inspired some thoughts here.
66: The Twinkling of an Eye by Brian Aldiss.
67: Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein – a straightforward fantasy that is also a subversive account of the creative processes that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.
68: Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel – a variable collection, some of which I have strong arguments with, and which I am reviewing for the BSFA.
69: The Dollmaker by Nina Allan – in my round-up of the year for Locus I described it as a nexus that recalled aspects of Little by Edward Carey, The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova, and After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry. I alsosaid that it is impossible to say whether or not we are meant to take it as a work of straightforward realist fiction. Anything overtly weird or fantastic is restricted to the interpolated stories, which are crowded with echoes and repetitions and a sense of otherness. Yet what makes this novel is the way that these stories, supposedly written decades before, prefigure characters, incidents and situations in the present. Which leaves The Dollmaker with an overwhelming sense of the uncanny, even though nothing exactly strange happens.
70: Purgatory by Alasdair Gray – what is perhaps most sad about the death of Alasdair Gray is that it probably means we won’t get the final part of his translation of The Divine Comedy.
71: Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton – the story of the oddballs who were behind Britain’s sabotage efforts during the Second World War, and how consistently the more conventional military forces and government departments tried to hamper them.
72: Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes – her spy novels tend to involve competent young men with a background in the arts or journalism, or both, who prove skilled at adapting to any unexpected situation, and who teams up with a young woman who turns out to be equally adaptable and imaginative. Take out the spy story, and what you have is a straightforward love story; which is exactly what this novel turns out to be. It is also the first of her novels that I’ve encountered that is set before the time in which it was written (first published 1948, but set around 1932-3), which leads me to wonder whether it was an early work which was dusted off when she started to be successful.
73: Morning Glory on the Vine by Joni Mitchell – another book displaced in time. Although first published in 2019, it actually consists of a selection of her pictures, lyrics and poems that she gathered together as a Christmas present for friends in the early-1970s. It is interesting to see how the lyrics of songs differ from what was recorded, and how some of the song lyrics are lifted from earlier poems.
As for my writing, it doesn’t seem like much: five reviews for Strange Horizons, one for Extrapolation, and the usual end-of-year bits and pieces, maybe 15,000 words in total. But then, I did manage to fit in an 80-odd thousand word book on Chris Priest, so it probably wasn’t too bad. And that was 2019, heaven knows what 2020 will bring, but I have a strange feeling it will end up being every bit as stressful as the last couple of years have been.