I have chosen one book from each year, with the added proviso that I have chosen no more than one title per author. That is, I admit, an artificial rule, and it did give me problems on a couple of years, but it avoids the problem that the list would otherwise be dominated by the same two or three names.
Some of these were obvious from the moment I thought of doing this list (the first and last on the list, for instance), others less so, mostly when there were years in which no title really sang out to me. I was sorely tempted to list two books from one year and none from another. But if you set yourself rules, I suppose the least you can do is stick to them. So here are ten books from the last ten years. I’d be very interested tosee what your lists are.
The Islanders – Christopher Priest
When I started this exercise, this was the first book I thought of. It is among the two or three very best novels Priest has written. I have read it several times now, and each time it seems fresh, each time the complexity, the daring, the humour all combine to make the book exciting and invigorating. There is always something new to discover within its maze of distortions, uncertainties, twists in time and games with identity. I reviewed the novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
I remember the excitement of reading Wolf Hall when it first came out. I know most commentators focussed on the way the novel connected with history, the rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell (up to that point familiarly presented as one of the villains of the age), the sense of being fully absorbed in the politics of the age. But for me what I found most engaging was the language. I wrote at Big Other about Mantel’s use of the word “he”, and what it signifies about identity and narrative voice. So now, two years later, there comes a sequel, and any fears I might have had are quickly dispelled: the same language, the same inhabitation of the age. The two books together are simply magnificent.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
I continue to regard this book as one of the finest works of science fiction of the last decade, although, as I said when I wrote about it here, it is a book that demands not to be read as science fiction. It is a variant on an alternate history novel, but here it is a single life, a single consciousness, that is fragmented. Ursula constantly dies and is reborn, barely if at all conscious of her previous existences, but always trying to relive her life in a way that brings her closer to achieving her goal, which is the survival of her brother who, most commonly, is killed in a bomber raid over Germany during World War II. The sequel, A God in Ruins, details the emptiness of the life that is thus saved, making for an extraordinarily powerful dyptych of novels.
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Not, perhaps, his finest novel (that, surely, is Cloud Atlas), but still a vivid, beautifully realised, and always compelling novel that manages to turn the half-sensed interlinking background that has underlain all of his
previous books into the foreground of the story. And it does so without in any way undermining the faithfulness of Mitchell’s portrayal of ordinary life from the recent past to the near future. As I wrote here, it spells out the patternmaking that is Mitchell’sapproach to writing.
The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts
I had a struggle with myself over Roberts’s place on this list: should his place go to The Thing Itself or to The Black Prince? If I were to subvert my own rules I would do both, without hesitation. But in the end I decided to go with The Thing Itself, partly because, while I love the way The Black Prince retells a medieval story in the manner of John Dos Passos, The Thing Itself includes a whole series of chapters recapturing literary styles that vary from 18th century prose to the work of James Joyce. It’s a joy to read, and the way the title offers a mash-up of John W. Campbell and Immanuel Kant demonstrates what a wild intellectual journey this book is.
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
Over the years, I have been in disagreement with the Arthur C. Clarke Award more often than not. I have found shortlists to be wilful and bizarre on too many occasions, but even then the right book might emerge as the winner, and this is one such. It is powerful, haunting, unforgettable, all of which I tried to compress into this piece about the book when I was on the Shadow Clarke jury.
The Rift – Nina Allan
Back at the end of 2017, when I wrote my list of the year’s reading, when it came to this novel I simply put: “My book of the year.” I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t try to justify the choice, somehow it felt like I didn’t need to. This was one of those books that was just so unquestionably right that I didn’t think it needed further discussion. It still feels that way to an extent. Of course, it is a novel that ticks all my boxes, a novel of indecision, of uncertainty, a novel that could go in any direction depending upon how we choose to read it. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do? Well, so far as I am concerned it is.
Europe at Dawn – Dave Hutchinson
Okay, I’m playing slightly fast and loose with my own rules here, in that I am using the final novel in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence to stand in for the whole series. Europe in Autumn not winning the Clarke Award was one of the occasions on which I seriously parted company with them. What I wrote about the third book, Europe in Winter, for the Shadow Clarke jury, sums up much of my feeling about the sequence, which I see as one of the most politically relevant works of science fiction we have seen for many years. And the way I see Europe at Dawn as a fine conclusion to the series is spelled out in my review for Locus.
Ivory Apples – Lisa Goldstein
I admit, I have doubts about including this novel in the list. I enjoyed it immensely, and as I said in my review
for Strange Horizons, I thought it was a major work of contemporary fantasy. Yet it somehow feels, in retrospect, slighter than some of the other titles on this list. But I wonder whether that is primarily an artefact of the way 2019 felt to me, a year in which nothing seemed to blaze particularly brightly. I’ve often found that in a year of good books it is easy to spot the great ones; but in a year of mediocre books, even the good ones seem diminished. That was 2019 for me; this is a good novel, it probably deserves its place, but it wasn’t a particularly good year.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M. John Harrison
Yeah, this is no surprise, is it? Only yesterday I was writing my massive survey of the year’s reading, and I said then that this was without doubt the novel of the year. Well, it is. It is the summation of everything we love about Harrison’s writing: the supple prose, the intense realism, the inescapable sense of the weird beginning to break in around the edges.