It is unusual for me to read a book in its year of release, so don’t come here looking for timely recommendations. I’ll aim to update this list at the end of every year. I read around 50 books a year; the vast majority are fiction, but there is some non-fiction and popular science. The books listed here were my favourites. All were read in English unless otherwise stated.
Axiom’s End (Noumena #1) – Lindsay Ellis. I’ve been following Ellis’s videos on literary and media criticism for quite a while, so I was really excited when she announced she’d be publishing a series of (hopefully) five science fiction novels, beginning with this one. This is a first contact story about how friendships can form when communication is hard, as well as a sort of espionage thriller, and an exploration of really super weird alien physiology. For someone of my age (Elder Millennial, I guess?), there is a tonne of nostalgia here alongside the really well written and exciting story – you might get flavours of everything from Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, the Iron Giant, and E.T., and maybe you’ll spot TV quotes and song lyrics from some classic early 2000s properties. Lots of fun, and I can’t wait for the next one!
Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries #5) – Martha Wells. Can Wells maintain the excitement and intensity of the Murderbot novellas in extended form? Hell yes she can! The stakes are suitably high in this full-length novel, both in the action-packed plot involving crazy (maybe evil) ancient aliens and A.I.s, and in the personal/emotional development of our central character, SecUnit, aka Murderbot himself. Our beloved protagonist finds himself for the first time trying to maintain what seems to be an actual friendship, and perhaps even serving as a mentor for other beings like himself. A significant challenge for someone/something who only woke himself up a short while ago, and who has since then been focussed solely on his own survival and concealment. This series shows no sign of losing its charm and I hope for many more instalments.
Lilith’s Brood: The Complete Xenogenesis Trilogy (collecting Xenogenesis series # 1-3: Dawn; Adulthood Rites; Imago) – Octavia E Butler. Absolutely epic science fiction, rightly hailed as a classic and a masterpiece by one of the all-time great practitioners. I read the whole trilogy in one omnibus collection that I devoured in about a fortnight. Lilith is one of countless humans who are plucked from a dying Earth post-nuclear war and kept hidden from each other in a mysterious off-world location. They have been “rescued” by a truly bizarre alien race called the Oankali, who study humans and “optimise” them according to their own designs. Lilith, and presumably many others, is repeatedly tested to see whether she could live alongside the weird and off-putting Oankali, and over many decades of artificially extended life, she begins to learn what they are, how they function, and what they want. When they eventually determine that Lilith is a suitable ambassador to help return a changed human race back to Earth on Oankali terms, she is made to serve as a teacher and then a living example of how humans and aliens may live and even breed together, producing entirely new kinds of life. We follow Lilith and her extended family of humans and not-quite-humans as they face the fact that they must either assimilate or perish. Lilith is a fascinating character as she never entirely acquiesces or comes to terms with her fate – she is pragmatic, and can accept that which she cannot change. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get to be angry about the loss of autonomy her species has faced. Is the price of survival worth paying if it means becoming something your ancestors wouldn’t even recognise?
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood. This sequel to the brilliant and influential The Handmaid’s Tale was a revelation, and showed the skill of a master fiction writer. Atwood makes the reader to feel sympathy, perhaps even admiration, for one of the most reviled characters in the original book, while also introducing new characters who propel the action of the story. It’s hard to review this without spoiling both books in the series, so I’ll stop here.
Creeping Jenny (John Nyquist series # 3) – Jeff Noon. The Nyquist series is getting creepier with each instalment. This one reminded me of the movie Kill List, which I watched under duress at a midnight Hallowe’en screening in Stockholm a few years back. Our private detective is on a very personal case this time, having received clues in the post that his long-mourned father may not be dead after all. Snippets of photographs lead him to the profoundly unsettling village of Hoxley, where every day is dedicated to one particular local saint. The days mandate the behaviour of everyone in the village: yesterday no-one could speak at all, today everyone’s names have changed, tomorrow everyone will be encased in a bubble of fog, and next week there’s a day when no-one will exist at all. Nyquist doesn’t know any of these rules, so he gets in a lot of trouble, especially when he starts asking questions that none of the locals feel like answering. More hallucinatory madness from the unique and inimitable mind of Jeff Noon.
The City We Became (Great Cities series #1) – NK Jemisin. I discovered Jemisin in 2019, and purchased this new book as soon as it was released. Five individuals in New York City discover that NYC is literally coming to life, and that they are the living embodiments of the five boroughs in which they live. They have to find a way to work together to defeat something that is keen on preventing their city from drawing breath. But they know so little, and they learn very slowly, whereas their foe is strong and quick. This is another incredible leap of imagination from Jemisin, and I am locked in for the whole series. Can’t wait to see where we go next. This year I also read her short story collection How Long ’til Black Future Month?, which gets another strong recommendation from me, and which includes tales relating to both the Great Cities and the Broken Earth series.
Wayfarers series, #1-3: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; A Closed and Common Orbit; Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers. Three overlapping books following the trials and tribulations of some very different kinds of humans living in the far future, when humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and is navigating life as a junior member of a vast galactic civilisation. In The Long Way…, we follow the crew of the Wayfarer space transport, space labourers who tunnel wormholes through space in order to facilitate travel for everyone else. There are aliens and sentient A.I.s among the crew, and getting to know them and the family dynamic they’ve created is just as fun as the book’s central adventure storyline. Closed and Common… follows two characters from the first book as they build a new life on one particular planet, and we learn why they both have difficulties in defining their own identities. We also learn about the incredible inequities in this galactic civilisation, and how both natural and artificial beings are exploited in plain sight. Finally, …Spaceborn Few follows the residents of the Exodus Fleet, the ships that carried the last humans away from Earth several centuries ago. As the human race spread out among the galaxy, a certain proportion of families remained on the fleet. Now, they trade with ships and planets they pass, but a great deal of the work to be done is centred on simply keeping the fleet alive. This book uses the backdrop of life in space to explore themes like responsibility, duty, and wanderlust, as we meet a generation for whom life on the ships seems to hold no prospects and no future. Familiar to anyone who grew up in a post-industrial small town and had to make a choice between staying close to family and forging a new path of their own design.
I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong. If you are familiar with my academic or research background, it’s a no-brainer that I would read and love this book. Yong tells the story of the microbes in your guts – what they are, what they do, and how we know about them. He interviewed a lot of the scientists whose work I have read and cited many times over the years, and it was fascinating to see my own field of research presented in such a wonderfully human way. Yong is an incredible science writer, able to convey both the majesty and the everydayness of the human-bacterial interactions that keep us alive.
Women in Microbiology – edited by Rachel J Whitaker and Hazel A Barton. I posted a long and waffling review of this back in April 2020. It is a compilation of inspiring short biographies of the women who have shaped and influenced various fields of microbiological research in the past couple of hundred years, including some very recent examples of which I was sadly unaware prior to reading. Still strongly recommended as an eye-opening look at some hopefully-not-forgotten scientific legacies.
The Body Library (John Nyquist series # 2) – Jeff Noon. The hallucinogenic second instalment in the Nyquist series is even creepier than the first. There is an infection in our detective’s city, causing reality to blend with fiction, allowing the written word to contaminate what is real. Nyquist is hunting a murderer, trying to uncover the truth of an impossible killing in an impossible place: a living library that won’t let him leave. *shudder*
The Power – Naomi Alderman. Another gift from my boyfriend, and another complete revelation! This is unapologetically feminist science fiction: what if suddenly, women everywhere could control and create electricity, becoming able to shoot arcs of electric energy from their fingertips? The gender balance of power could tip immediately, as every ancient wrong would be righted. This is fun and outlandish sci-fi with half the people on Earth gaining mad superpowers, and it is fascinating to watch the women and men in this society change as the new order exerts itself. Not all who wield power can wield it justly.
American Gods – Neil Gaiman. I read this just before I watched the TV adaptation, and I’m glad I did. There’s a lot of story detail and character beats that haven’t made it on screen yet, and the book tells a great and complete story. I have always loved books that bring the old Gods back to us, and have them live in modern times. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams‘s ‘Dirk Gently’ book that found Odin the Allfather living in an old people’s home in London, and of ‘Bloodtide’ by Melvin Burgess – a book I was definitely too young to cope with when I read it. Remember, no matter what he tells you, and no matter what you hear, Odin is only ever on the side of Odin.
Broken Earth trilogy, # 1-3: The Fifth Season; The Obelisk Gate; The Stone Sky – NK Jemisin. There are four seasons in every year, we all know this. But now and again a fifth season comes. It may last for weeks or decades, and the world will be changed by it. We begin in The Fifth Season as just such a catastrophe unfolds, and follow three women at different phases of life as they navigate a changing world, a world that has literally ripped open around them. In The Obelisk Gate, a woman with the potential to change the world again must decide whether accepting this power is worth the loss of her family and her identity, and we begin to learn the origins of the cycle of calamity. Finally, with The Stone Sky, a decision is made about who has the right to wield world-altering powers, and about whether what is broken always deserves to be fixed. I cannot praise this series highly enough – the scope and scale of the stories told here are phenomenal. Jemisin‘s writing is so evocative and vivid. I have clear visual memories of scenes that I cannot now describe, and I remember squirming in my seat during passages where I felt a character’s discomfort. Some of the strongest fiction I’ve read in a long time.
The Murderbot Diaries # 1-4: All Systems Red; Artificial Condition; Rogue Protocol; Exit Strategy – Martha Wells. I LOVE MURDERBOT!!! After discovering the first in this series, I devoured all four of these short novellas one right after the other. Super fun sci-fi about an organic-android construct who becomes self-aware and breaks free from his punishingly restrictive governor module. At first he needs to blend in on missions with other SecUnits, who have no emotions, no free will, and no thoughts of their own. Eventually, shenanigans ensue and he is forced to find a way to exist without being told what to do. He begins to consider what (who?) he truly is, and what his place in the universe might be. There really is a lot of deep examination of what it means to be a human in these stories. But they rip along at an incredible pace! Non-stop sci-fi action, very shooty, very fun, and Murderbot himself is a fantastic and ultimately lovable narrator. I love Murderbot!
Inferior: The true power of women and the science that shows it – Angela Saini. Scientific research has been used to maintain patriarchal dominance for a long time, telling us that men and women are fundamentally different creatures who therefore must fulfil different roles in society. That women are designed and destined to be caregivers, nurturers, home-makers. While men are meant to be the decision-makers, the thinkers, and the builders of society. Research that has supported these claims is bullshit – of course it is, and it always has been – but it’s not always easy to argue against unless you are carrying evidence of your own. Saini lays out everything that is wrong with the notion that we are “less than” and, perhaps more importantly, shows clearly where pernicious and false notions of female inferiority came from. Arm yourself with the knowledge in this book.
This was a weird and bad year. I lost my Dad in January, which is not something I’m ready to write about yet. One result was that I lost the ability to really concentrate or focus on anything, and I couldn’t read books at all until late March. I made two significant literary purchases this year. I bought the Penguin Modern box set of fifty short (40-60 small pages) books from the Penguin Modern Classics imprint, which gathers “avant-garde essays, radical polemics, newly translated poetry and great fiction”. And I bought the first display-worthy box-set of twenty Penguin Vintage Minis, short stories and book excerpts from some of Penguin’s most famous authors. These super-short books were just what I needed in the lowest points of 2018, as I could start and finish one in a day or so, and sort of reset my brain. I can definitely recommend the collections to anyone seeking to expand the roster of authors they read, as the series introduced me to some new voices I will definitely look out for in future. Plus, if you value physical books as display objects for the home, the boxes look beautiful on a bookshelf. Now that there are over forty books in the Vintage Minis series, I am hoping that Penguin will release a second box-set!
Radiance – Catherynne M Valente. This was a gift from my boyfriend, and a total revelation. I’d never read Valente’s work before, and I’d never read any book that felt like this one. Different chapters are written as movie scripts, letters, diary entries, interviews, and in other styles, so the reading experience is consistently shifting throughout the book. The story is set in an alternate retro-futuristic 1986, where interplanetary travel is easy but it’s hard to make movies (curse you and your patent-hoarding, Edison *shakes fist*. The central character is a movie director, and there’s a lot of old Hollywood glamour in this book, which tells a story that is hard to define but so worth the time spent in reading.
Kindred – Octavia E Butler. An African American woman is repeatedly dragged to the past by her white slave-owning ancestor. Neither of them understands how or why this keeps happening, but we watch as these frequent journeys into her family history take over Dana’s life in the present, damaging her career, relationship, and sanity. This is science fiction at its absolute best and strongest – it is a gripping, emotional, and exciting story, that also offers tremendous insight into the times in which it was written.
A Man of Shadows (John Nyquist series # 1) – Jeff Noon. Noon is a long-time favourite author of mine, having written the ‘Vurt’ series many years ago, creating a totally unique and vivid cut-up style of new weird psychedelic cyber punk sci-fi something. Most of his books had small print runs and were not easy to find, so I typically have dog-eared second-hand copies tracked down on eBay. So, I was elated when Angry Robot Books announced the new John Nyquist Mysteries series by Noon, as this would mean a new book every year for the foreseeable!! The series is just as weird and unique and vividly drawn and creepy as the old ‘Vurt’ series but now we’re following a private detective named John Nyquist. Nyquist lives in the permanently dark city of Nocturna, and takes on a case that takes him to the permanently bright city of Dayzone, through the dangerous hinterland of Dusk, and into the path of the serial killer Quicksilver. Will he find the girl he’s looking for? And can she answer the questions holding the cities to ransom? This is mind-bending fiction like nothing you’ve read before unless you’re already a fan of Noon, and a great detective thriller to boot. Some GoodReads reviewers seemed to struggle with this blending of genres, but I am here for it.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa. Not since ‘I Am A Cat’ (Natsume Sōseki) have I cried so hard and so long at the end of a book. The loss of someone close to you is only painful because of the love you shared. That love is where this book is set.
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson. Published in 1962, this chronicling of the impact of chemical pesticides on the natural world is often credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. The writing is crisp and well-informed, and the case studies still have lessons for us today, although much of the scientific research mentioned in the book has of course been built upon in the decades since publication. Worth a read to see how much things have – and have not – changed in the ways that we treat the natural world.