As is usual at the end of December, I’m looking back on my year of reading during 2019. This is made much easier than it used to be, thanks to Goodreads and its handy ‘your year in books page’. According to it – I have read 35 books this year, and 9,460 pages. This is actually underestimating my reading, as I don’t tend to read short stories – which I’ve read a lot of this year. But for novels, it should mostly cover it (I may have missed logging one or two, but not more). I’ve not quite made my Goodreads challenge, which was 40 books, but that’s because I’ve read (and written) a lot of short stories. So I don’t feel too bad about that.
My reading tastes are quite eclectic, ranging from SF to historical, and horror to politics (or maybe they are one and the same?). Here’s my favourite 10 books of the year (in no particular order). This year they are mostly SF, but with a couple of outstanding non-SF novels too.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry – Wendell Berry is a very highly regarded American poet and environmental activist, but in addition to poetry and essays he’s written a fair chunk of fiction too. To date he’s written eight novels and fifty-one short stories, all set in and around the fictional Kentucky town of Port William. The stories have a big cast of characters and chronicle the changing lives, landscape and social and cultural situation of the town. In this regard, he’s been likened to William Faulkner (albeit Port William is much easier to remember than the name of Faulkner’s fictional locale – Yoknapatawpha County). Jayber Crow was recommended by a friend as a good starting point for his Port William stories. It is the life story of the titular character, who after being orphaned at a young age and failing to become a vicar, ends up becoming the town barber. The story spans something like fifty years, and introduces the reader to many of the characters that recur in Berry’s other stories. Really beautiful writing, wonderful evocation of time and place. I can’t wait to read something else and get back to Port William.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – For a long time I avoided this book; because of how old it is, I thought it must be really dated. On one level it is. It is made up of a series of linked short stories that were mostly written in the 1940s, and put together in book form in 1951. They were written at a time when mankind was on the cusp of greater understanding of the solar system, including Mars. At the time Bradbury was writing this book, it was still just about conceivable that there could be Martians living on the red planet, but soon that would be definitively disproved. This makes it more like a fantasy novel these days, but that somehow doesn’t matter. The book is a commentary on humankind, and a Mars forms a proxy for the colonisation of the American west in the 19th century. What really makes this book shine though is the beautiful, lyrical prose that Bradbury employs. It’s wonderful, unlike almost any other writers works I’ve ever read. So read it for the story and the writing, and don’t worry that what is being described obviously couldn’t be true.
Among Others by Jo Walton – I started this book several years ago, but didn’t get into it. Several friends raved about it however, so I knew I had to go back to it. I’m really glad I did. It follows Mor, a teenage girl sent to live with two unfriendly aunts, then on to boarding school. She takes refuge in reading SF & Fantasy, as well as communing with fairies. There’s a plot to the book, book that’s almost not the point. This is a coming of age story, and a love letter to science fiction (and libraries, as it happens). There’s a lot of discussions of real science fiction books she’s reading, so if you’ve read a lot in the genre (particularly classic SF) you’ll get a lot out of it. I’ve read a fair amount, so some of the books being talked about were familiar, a lot of the rest immediately went on my To Be Read list! A rare, unusual, brilliant book for SF fans.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone & Amal El-Mohtar – I started out by reading Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone (which just missed out on this list). After enjoying that a lot, I picked up Gladstone’s collaboration with Amal El-Mohtar. I’m very glad I did. It is about two beings on opposite sides in a time war that has been raging for aeons (though presumably time has no meaning…). They are agents – spies – and gradually become aware of each other, even if they don’t meet for a long time. They start to get to know each other from each’s operations (which they’re trying to counter), start leaving little notes for each other… A wonderful time travel and love story rolled into one, brilliantly imagined and beautifully described.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow – I really enjoyed Alix’s short story, ‘A Witches Guide to Escape: A Practical Guide to Portal Fantasies’, it was one of the stand out short stories I read in 2019, and on the strength of that I got this as soon as it came out. There’s quite a few similarities – well, magical portals at least – but this was a richly imagined multiplicity of worlds, and a lovely, well thought out story.
Circe by Madeline Miller – Is this fantasy or historical fiction? I don’t know, but it is good fiction! It follows the life and fortunes of Circe, sorceress and daughter of the Greek god of the sun, Titan. Supreme god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, feels threatened by her powers, so exiles her to a remote island. However she crosses paths with many heroes from Greek mythology, which all form part of this story. This is a wonderful re-imagining of the Greek myths.
Wasp by Eric Frank Russell – This is a classic SF novel by little known (these days) writer Eric Frank Russell. The title, Wasp, comes from the idea that a wasp in a car can cause chaos and destruction out of all proportion to its size – by stinging the driver and passengers, causing a crash and so on. This novel follows a human ‘wasp’, who has agreed to be planted deep undercover on an alien world that is at war with humanity. The wasp, human James Mowry, causes much mayhem among the alien inhabitants, by stoking fear and conducting acts of terrorism. In recent times the book has received some criticism for appearing to condone or even glamorise terrorism. I think that misses the point of the book, but perhaps explains its decline in popularity. A very interesting, unusual and fun book.
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett – I used to love reading thriller novels, but somewhere along the way I started to find them vapid, empty, pointless. I’d hurtle through the book, compelled by the author’s arts into keeping turning the pages, desperate to find out what happens next. Then I reached the end, and it left no lasting impression, just a mild exhaustion and relief at having finished. However after my wife picked this book up for me from a charity shop, I decided I had to give it a go. This is set in World War 2, about a German super spy trying to find the plans for D-Day, and British agents trying to stop him. It was a page turner, but rooted in a very real and interesting history. A good book.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells – This is in fact a novella, and the first in a series of novellas called The Murderbot Diaries. They are told from the perspective of a self-aware droid who has broken its programming to be its own entity. It calls itself ‘Murderbot’ (for reasons the story gets into), and is addicted to watching human tv shows. It is charged with protecting humans on a survey mission to an alien planet, but really just wants to be left alone to figure out who it is. Really fresh narrative, and this ‘bot’ makes a great character.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal – This is a sort of alternative history novel. Basically, history is the same up until the mid-20th century when an asteroid inpact that destroys much of the east coast of America, triggering a drive to go into space. The story follows Elma, a ‘calculator’ (think the women from Hidden Figures book/film) who wants to become an astronaut. It may be an alternative history, but what hasn’t changed is racism and sexism rife in 1950s America, and Elma has to overcome much to become an astronaut. This alternative history approach is a great way to tell an old-fashioned story about the space race.
There were some good books that missed out, and I have a strong feeling that my current book, Recursion by Blake Crouch, would be pushing one of the 10 off my list. So I’m rather glad I’m writing this now so I don’t have to make that decision!