It is somewhat 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 from now on. Lately I am reading around 50 books a year, mostly fiction, some non-fiction and popular science. These were my favourites. All books were read in English unless otherwise stated.
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.
Murderbot series, # 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.