It’s been a pretty good reading year for me, by the number of books I pulled out as favourites from my 2022 reading log. My top ten feels notably topical, much more so than last year: environmentalism, colonialism, capitalism, the rise of the far right all stand out to me as common themes. I guess, like many of us, I’ve been drawn to fiction that works to make sense of our current moment, a moment when we seem to be standing vertiginously on the brink of apocalypse. Perhaps paradoxically, I don’t think this is a particularly downbeat list; there are moments of hope as well as more sombre notes, reminders of the great gift that life is, and of what we stand to lose if we carry on down this path.
So, here they are: my top ten reads of 2022.
- Ventriloquism – Catherynne M. Valente (2010). Of course, having just discussed how topical this list is, I start with possibly the least topical book on it. Not that the stories collected in Ventriloquism do not often feel urgent and searching: in particular, there is a strong feminist sensibility running through them. But the best and most playful stories – “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time”, which mashes up advanced physics with creation tales from around the world; “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica”, a catalogue of maps which also explores the rivalry between two cartographers; “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”, the precursor to Valente’s Art Deco space opera novel Radiance – are more personal than political. Valente’s long been a favourite author of mine, thanks to her resonant uses of myth and fairytale and her lush, ornate prose; Ventriloquism collects some of her best work.
- Notes from the Burning Age – Claire North (2021). This novel, on the other hand, is thoroughly of the moment: set in a future in which humanity has learned to live more sustainably, it tells the story of the rise of an anti-environmentalist movement whose proponents believe that humanity should have dominion over the earth. I place it so high on this list because it was so utterly unexpected: I went in expecting an SF thriller along the lines of North’s earlier Touch and got instead a novel that expresses near-perfectly my own ideas about what a sustainable society might look like and what our relationship to our planet should be. There is a thriller element, which sometimes drives the book in a pulpier direction than I’d like, but its core ideas have stayed with me and will do for a long time.
- Ammonite – Nicola Griffith (1992). Setting aside the problematic nature of the novel’s central premise – it’s set on a planet where only women can survive, which indicates that there’s some rather reductionist thinking about gender going on somewhere – this is another delightfully quiet story about living in harmony with one’s environment, building community through mutual aid and complex chains of allegiance. Again, Ammonite was a book that came as a surprise to me: an ostensibly science-fictional text that reads in some respects more like fantasy.
- Babel – R.F. Kuang (2022). I will be very surprised if this is not one of this year’s Hugo nominees. I’m not convinced that Kuang’s magic system, which runs off the losses and shifts of meaning involved in translating texts from one language to another, harmonises perfectly with what she has to say about colonialism and appropriation; but she captures so exactly what it feels like to be at Oxford, the heady golden days of intellectual pursuit coupled with the uneasy knowledge of the damage the institution has done and is still doing, that I can forgive her that. Her ending, too, is impeccably pitched; the kind of ending that feels, with hindsight, inevitable. Big, ambitious, exciting.
- Downbelow Station – C.J. Cherryh (1981). A classic work of SF, and one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. There are things that…are not great about it (I doubt we’d see anything like the hisa in published SF today, or at least one would hope not), but for the most part it’s a satisfyingly dense and chunky novel, broad in scope and more grittily realist in approach than I was expecting. I’ll be interested to read other books in the series, if I can find them in hard copy.
- In Other Lands – Sarah Rees Brennan (2017). Originally published online, this is a heartfelt coming-of-age novel that isn’t trying to be anything more than that. I’ve wept more at the utter teenage despair of its snarky, socially awkward protagonist Elliot than I have at any other work of art for a long time. Like Notes from a Burning Age and Babel, it’s a novel that just seems to get a part of me that I’ve barely been able to explain to myself.
- The Past is Red – Catherynne M. Valente (2021). Again, it’s Valente’s prose that wins this one for me; that, and its heroine’s conviction, in the face of all available evidence, that she lives in the best of all possible worlds. Valente’s critique of overconsumption and the heedlessness of the super-rich feels a little too on the nose; but the book’s last page is perfection.
- Market Forces – Richard Morgan (2004). I’m not a fan of Morgan’s depictions of characters who are not white men, but I always find his ideas, and the dynamic cyberpunky prose he uses to express them, invigorating. Here, he literalises capitalism’s metaphor of competition, making his City financiers and consultants fight to the death as a matter of course. It’s a compelling study of complicity and guilt that chimed in interesting ways with a lot of my reading this year.
- Red Pill – Hari Kunzru (2020). The experience of reading this novel encapsulates in miniature the experience of existing as a liberal in this present moment: the sense of disorientation and confusion as what appeared to be the long arc of progress collapses into reactionary conservatism; as what seemed to be the basic facts of the world are unmoored and overturned. Its protagonist’s inability to find answers to the far-right discourse he sees erupting around him feels deeply and terrifyingly relatable.
- Bewilderment – Richard Powers (2021). I’m not terribly satisfied with this novel’s treatment of the protagonist’s autistic child, who is used more as a plot device than as a character with agency of his own. But Powers is very good at describing the miracle of the world we see all about us: the complexity of something so simple as a fallen leaf, for example. And his melding of the science-fictional with the realistic is skillful and resonant.
- I read 88 books in 2022; one fewer than last year.
- The longest book I read was Donna Tartt’s sprawling The Goldfinch, at 864 pages; the shortest was Michael Bockemühl’s study of J.M.W. Turner, at just 96. In all I read 33,641 pages this year, down from last year’s 35,787. (I’ve obviously been reading shorter books.)
- The oldest book I read in 2022 was Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848. The average age of the books I read in 2022 was 16, down from 19 last year. (I’ve obviously been reading newer books, too.)
- Genre: genre distinctions are of course fuzzy and contested, but by my rather idiosyncratic rubric 36% of the books I read in 2022 were science fiction (up from 19% last year); 26% were fantasy (down from 43% last year); 22% were litfic, the same as last year. I wonder if the switchover between SF and fantasy as my favoured genre has something to do with my seeking out more topical fiction. (I should note, as well, that my “litfic” category includes several novels with speculative elements that didn’t feel solidly genre.) I’ve also read five novels that I classified as “contemporary” (mostly romances), four non-fiction books, a “classic” (the aforesaid Tenant of Wildfell Hall), a crime novel (Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters), a horror novel (Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians) and a mystery (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land).
- Just 7% of the books I read in 2022 were re-reads (down from last year’s 29%; that figure was only so high because the libraries were closed for a good proportion of 2021). Incidentally, all of those re-reads were by J.R.R. Tolkien, except for Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, which I had forgotten I’d already read.
- 58% of the books I read in 2022 were by people who are not men, slightly down from last year’s 60%.
- 28% of the books I read in 2022 were by people of colour, up from last year’s 19%.
- And 22% of the books I read in 2022 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 19%.
Another weird year in reading, this one: with the libraries closed again until April, a good third of the books I read this year were re-reads. Re-reading is a pleasure of its own, of course, but what it doesn’t bring is the shock of the new, the brilliant surprise of discovering something you didn’t know existed. As a result, I found it difficult this year even to identify ten new-to-me books that I thought were top-tier favourites; normally I’m whittling down a list of about fifteen.
Here they are, anyway: my top ten reads of 2021; and, afterwards, some spreadsheet stats.
Top Ten Books of 2021
- Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (2020). This mostly-realist tale of a fictional 60s band has some misfires – most notably its somewhat schlocky speculative element – but its characters are so vivid, so humanly flawed, that you can’t help but love it. Dean, Griff, Elf, Jasper and Levon all – still! – feel like friends of my heart; this is a truly warm and wonderful novel.
- Hild – Nicola Griffith (2014). It took me twelve days to read this 550-page novel, and I’m a fast reader. Part of what makes it a slow read is its almost speculative treatment of its seventh-century setting: it plunges the modern reader into a very alien cultural and social milieu, asking us to keep up with political divisions and developments that we know almost nothing about, using unfamiliar terms that it doesn’t stop to explain. And part of it is that Hild herself gains power in a hostile society by observing, quietly, the movements and currents of the world around her. It made me want to do the same: to pay attention; to read slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. One of those rare books that changes your worldview as you read.
- The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019). Another novel that applies speculative techniques to the stuff of realism; in this case, Virginian slavery. I loved Coates’ lyrical, supple prose, and his use of fantasy to point up the ways in which his enslaved characters are estranged from their own history. For me, it’s a novel that achieved what Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad did not.
- Possession – A.S. Byatt (1990). I was never not going to like this layered, brilliant tale of academic discovery and forbidden romance. It just works on so many levels: the tone-perfect pastiche of Victorian poetry; the exploration of intellectual and romantic possession; the complex, fraught relationships it charts between its various pairs of lovers. A novel to curl up into and to savour.
- Unconquerable Sun – Kate Elliott (2020). This take on “Alexander the Great in space” is just really solid, enjoyable SF. The worldbuilding has texture and substance; the text resists easy moralities; queerness is an expected and unremarkable aspect of its fictional society. Deeply satisfying.
- Shriek: An Afterword – Jeff Vandermeer (2006). I didn’t know much about Shriek before I started reading it, and I found it absolutely fascinating. The fictional city of Ambergris is underlain by a fungoid society that is terrifying in its absolute illegibility. There are shades of China Mieville here, but Vandermeer’s work is more personal, more focused on its twin protagonists, and so that sense of the abcanny, and the threat of it, is magnified. I’m excited to read more about Ambergris.
- The Unreal and the Real Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands – Ursula K. le Guin (2012). I read this collection of short stories in a day, travelling, an immersion that never became wearing. So many of these stories are linked, drawn from le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (although a few stand on their own, and one of them is set in the Earthsea universe), but they all explore very different ways of being and living. I don’t think I’d ever quite realised how transformative le Guin’s work is before: the collection made me think of le Guin’s quote about how capitalism feels as inescapable as the divine right of kings once did, and it really bears out that optimism, that idea that it might be possible to imagine a new kind of society into existence.
- Hot Head – Simon Ings (1992). My last read of 2021, this was another one that came as a pleasant surprise. Set in a cyberpunk future in which the Singularity is about to be invented, it’s deeply engaged with questions of identity, of storymaking and of cultural cohesion. Despite its early 90s publication date, it also features a Muslim protagonist and multiple queer characters. Like many debut novels, it’s a little uneven, but there are some interesting ideas here.
- Infidel – Kameron Hurley (2011). I’ve been looking for this novel in libraries and bookshops for literal years; what a pleasure finally to find it! Hurley’s later work doesn’t appeal to me, but the terse, punchy prose and apocalyptic desertscapes of her Bel Dame trilogy really do. Another SF novel that’s just – fun.
- Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (2020). A novel about the family that Shakespeare left at home in Stratford as he achieved fame and fortune in London, Hamnet is another litfic work that’s also a little bit speculative. In this case, the speculative elements are there to immerse us in a worldview very different from the modern one; a worldview that contained the supernatural, the otherworldly, as accepted fact. It’s a technique I’ve always enjoyed; and I also like O’Farrell’s close attention to domestic life in this time period, the textures and smells of 16th-century England.
- I read 89 books in 2021; much less than last year’s anomalous 121.
- The longest book I read was my mammoth collected edition of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, at 953 pages; the shortest was Thomas Pynchon’s snappy The Crying of Lot 49, at just 125. Both were re-reads. In all I read 35,787 pages in 2021, significantly down from last year’s whopping 41,837.
- The oldest book I read in 2021 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another re-read and first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2021 was 19, up from last year’s 12.
- Genre: 43% of the books I read in 2021 were fantasy, down from 45% last year. Just 19% were science fiction, down from 26% last year. In fact, for the first time since I started recording my reading in 2014, I read more litfic than SF this year: 22% (last year only 8% of the books I read were litfic). The remaining 16% consists of four historical novels, four classics, three non-fiction books, two contemporaries, a Granta anthology and a book of poetry (Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects).
- As I mentioned earlier, almost a third of the books I read in 2021 were re-reads: 29%, considerably up from last year’s 9%.
- 60% of the books I read in 2021 were by women and non-binary people – the same as in 2020.
- 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by people of colour – slightly up from last year’s 18%.
- And 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 15%.
Happy New Year to everyone using the Gregorian calendar! 2020 was a weird year: I read loads, much more than I have in any year since I started recording my reading in 2014, thanks to a lack of commute and social obligations; and although I read lots of thought-provoking, ambitious books, I’m not sure any of them were truly standout. Here’s my top ten from 2020 (read, not necessarily published, last year); and, afterwards, some stats from my spreadsheet.
Top Ten Books of 2020
- This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). OK, when I said there were no standout books this year, that was a lie. This Is How You Lose the Time War is intricate, queer and devastatingly triumphant; its tale of mortal enemies attempting to build a space in which they can be together is both timely and timeless. I read it twice – once for pleasure, once for review – and cried both times.
- Speak Easy – Catherynne M. Valente (2015). A Prohibition-inspired retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be: a gem of a book full to bursting of Valente’s baroque, euphonious prose, a whole glittering, glamorous world conjured in its 142 pages.
- Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015). What surprised me most about Robinson’s take on the generation ship story was how this very science-focused novel gave me a new perspective on my own flavour of neopaganism: it’s all about the complexity of the feedback systems that keep us alive on this rock spinning through space, and the idea that everything affects everything else is a core neopagan tenet. It helped me reframe how science intersects with my own religion; in other words, how I understand the world at a fundamental level. And what more can we ask of our reading than that?
- Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir (2019). This is here because it was so damn fun to read, its Gothic Gormenghast-esque space setting punctured by Gideon’s sarcastic, memeified voice: it’s a very now read, a novel aimed at a very specific subset of SFF-loving internet denizens. Plus: space lesbians!
- The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold (2001). I was quite dismissive of The Curse of Chalion while I was reading it, focusing more on the resistance I tend to experience when reading fantasy novels than its formal qualities. I think that’s because it’s best looked at as a whole, when its cathartic structure becomes visible and thus Bujold’s thesis on the intersection of free will and faith emerges fully. It’s a brilliant work of fantastic theology, and it manages to depict the mysteries of faith in a way that very few contemporary novels do.
- The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanigahara (2013). This is at times an extremely uncomfortable read: content warnings apply for child sexual abuse and quite graphic scenes of animal experimentation. It’s here for its combination of a Nabokovian unreliable narrator with themes of Western entitlement, colonialism and habitat destruction. Above all, it’s an extremely powerful portrait of a white man who believes himself superior to everyone else and thus beyond reproach, leaving him completely blind to his own selfishness and monstrosity.
- Lent – Jo Walton (2019). Another religiously-focused work, Lent is a cleverly structured meditation on sin and redemption. Because it’s so immersed in its 15th century Italian setting, it gave me a lot to think about with regards to medieval Christianity and how it was practiced, and thus some ideas for my own religious practice too.
- The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995). I read a bunch of Kay’s work in 2020, mainly because that was what we had in the house, so The Lions of Al-Rassan stands here for a few of his novels. I like this one in particular for the clarity with which his three protagonists stand for three of the main political forces in his fictionalised Europe, making their friendship always already tenuous, verging on the impossible.
- Circe – Madeleine Miller (2018). Feminist rereadings of Greek myth and witchcraft are not new at this point, and so the trajectory that Circe’s story takes is perhaps not surprising; but I still enjoyed Miller’s complication of her portrayal as a tempting and dangerous seductress. The novel is both true to the original myths (albeit following one of the less familiar plotlines) and surprisingly satisfying in the end, as Circe manages to find some measure of peace and freedom.
- Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020). Piranesi‘s slow reveal of the truth about the strange world it’s set in gives it a sick kind of propulsiveness, as we come to realise that its generous-minded protagonist is being manipulated by people who believe themselves above reproach; in that sense it has some striking similarities with The People in the Trees. It’s also very gentle to those who its villains have harmed, rejecting narrative satisfaction to some degree in favour of recognising that such damage cannot necessarily be entirely undone.
Stats from my reading spreadsheet!
- I read a huge 121 books in 2020; that’s 22 more than in 2019.
- The longest book I read was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind at a bloated 662 pages; Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach and Shaenon K. Garrity’s The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co., neither of them very compelling, are tied for shortest at 100 pages each. Overall, I read 41,837 pages in 2020, unsurprisingly considerably up from 2019’s 35,803.
- The oldest book I read was E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which was first published in 1820. The average age of the books I read in 2020 was just 12, down again from 14 in 2019.
- Genre: 45% of the books I read in 2020 were fantasy, up from 31% in 2019; 26% were SF, unchanged from 2019. 12% were non-fiction, down from 2019’s 19%; just 8% were litfic, down from 15% in 2019 (although my personal definition of “litfic” changes from year to year so this figure is a bit finger-in-the-air). The other 9% consists of two comedy novels, two crime, three historical and two horror.
- Surprisingly, just 9% of the books I read in 2020 were re-reads, down from 2019’s 11%. I would have thought this figure would be higher, given my lack of access to the library and other sources of new books during the pandemic.
- 60% of the books I read in 2020 were by women and non-binary people, quite a lot up from 48% in 2019 (note: I read no non-binary authors in 2019, as far as I’m aware); I’m happy about this and also surprised – I expected my lack of library access to make my reading less diverse, not more.
- On the other hand, I shouldn’t congratulate myself too soon: just 18% of the books I read in 2020 were by people of colour, down from 24% last year. I did expect this: I’m careful when borrowing books from the library to choose works by people of colour, but long periods of being forced to choose from the books I actually have on my bookshelves have revealed that those books are still very white. Going forward I’m committing to making sure that I’m buying books by people of colour in the same proportion as borrowing them from the library.
- 15% of the books I read in 2020 were by queer authors, up from 5% in 2019. This is pretty good too, I think.
Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…
I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.
My Favourite Things of 2018
Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.
TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.
Film: Jupiter Ascending. Yeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.
- I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
- The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
- The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
- Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
- 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
- 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
- And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.
- Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Of course a Valente novel would have to be top of this list. Her Wild West retelling of Snow White is dark and hard as the Grimm original, but sparser, unrelieved by fairytale’s usual descriptive excesses; it’s a story about how trauma perpetuates itself in systems of oppression. (It’s less dour than that makes it sound.)
- Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. I really like the lyrical magical realism of Oyeyemi’s Snow White retelling, a subtle, nuanced look at race and gender and how the kyriarchy twists all our relationships with each other. It’s lovely work; unfortunately, it’s tainted by a transphobic ending that comes virtually out of nowhere.
- Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik. Novik pulls off the tricky feat of expanding and enriching her source material (Rumpelstiltskin) to speak about female agency while retaining its essential fairytale quality – its emphasis on words and promises and names and deep elemental magic.
- The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – Terry Pratchett. This is actually a very dark novel considering it’s one of Pratchett’s ventures into YA; it channels the Germanic Gothickry of the Grimm fairy tale it’s based on (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). It’s also a lot of fun, though, the horror carried along by Pratchett’s wit and humanity.
- Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett’s witches are always great fun, and their practicality makes for a funny, incisive critique of the unrealistic perfection of fairy tales and the danger of making simple stories out of messy lives.
- Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi. This is an interesting book, a novel in short stories about a writer whose character comes to life. It’s a take on the Bluebeard myth, that favourite of feminist writers everywhere; expect stories that are fierce and witty and uncompromising.
- The Sandman – Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s graphic novel series is really based on a jumble of sources that owes only a little to the original stories of the Sandman. But it is interested in traditional fairy tale structures, and it has the darkness of fairy tale, and I like it so I’m counting it.
- The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson. This is another recent read, and it’s here because I read it as a selkie story; it’s open-ended enough that there are other possible readings. I enjoyed it mainly because of the way its fantastic elements are allowed to coexist with complex characterisation – our heroine is unlikable in many ways (including her rooted homophobia and biphobia, which the narrative is careful to condemn) without being irredeemable.
- Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente. Deathless isn’t my favourite of Valente’s novels: her retelling of the Russian fairy tale Koschei the Deathless is too loose and unfocused, even slightly affectless, for me. Still, it’s Valente, which makes it worth one read at least.
- Cinder – Marissa Meyer. I found this cyberpunk YA retelling of Cinderella really fascinating when I read it a few years ago: its futuristic New Beijing setting felt lived-in, convincing, busy with all the messinesses of ordinary life under capitalism (although I have no idea how superficial or not its Asian elements are). As an update of Cinderella, it’s also smart and feminist – or, at least, that was the impression I got four years ago.
(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- Blue van Meer – Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I love that Blue sees the world filtered through the dubious gauze of academia and literary thought and scientific theory, and that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. I can relate: it’s always tempting to overlay mundanity with deeper meaning.
- Catherine Morland – Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen. Catherine’s much like Blue: she sees everything in terms of her beloved Gothic novels, when there’s usually something less melodramatic but more insidiously serious going on.
- Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael’s bookishness is more a matter of convenience than a choice, I guess: she works in the fabulous Library of the Clayr because it’s quiet and she can avoid her endless cousins, rather than because she particularly likes books. But her librarian background stays with her through all her adventures, and it really is an awesome library, so I’m counting it.
- Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Alana believes, right down in the core of her being, that a book can change the world. What bookworm doesn’t relate to that fervour? And, who knows, she might be right.
- Ariel Manto – The End of Mr Y, Scarlett Thomas. Ariel spends her last £50 on a rare book. She’s one of us, all right.
- Meggie Folchart – Inkheart, Cornelia Funke. Meggie sleeps with a book under a pillow at night! When she goes on adventures she takes the books that will give her courage! Lots of my reading habits are modelled on hers – I read this when I was like eight, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
- Hermione Granger – the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling. I mean. I basically have to include Hermione, who is obviously the best of the three Harry Potter kids. (Much more interesting than Harry.)
- Francesca – A Novel Bookstore, Laurence Cosse. If only because her dream of opening the perfect bookshop, a bookshop that sells only the best literature, is so perfect, and a thing I want to see so much. “We want books that leave nothing out: neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs.”
- Katin Crawford – Nova, Samuel Delany. Katin’s…a little out of touch with the world, to put it mildly. In the far-future world of Nova, the novel as an art form is thousands of years obsolete. But Katin still wants to write one, to draw together all the strands of the historical moment he inhabits. He’s fascinated by them. He’s like all of us: a thinker, a dreamer, a person who knows there are other worlds than these.
- The creature – Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. The creature gets his entire education from Paradise Lost, basically. Which, in all honesty, is probably precisely as healthy as basing your childhood morality on The Lord of the Rings. Which I definitely did not do. Ever. *coughs*
(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. What I love about The Fifth Season, and the other novels in the Broken Earth trilogy, is the way it decouples minority representation from its discussion of how institutional discrimination traumatises its victims. In its world, queerness of all kinds is unremarkable, women occupy leadership roles unquestioned, and dark skin is the norm. Which means that its queer and female characters and its characters of colour are not defined by those things as they so often are in popular culture. And yet its society is also, like ours, fundamentally shaped by structures intentionally designed to exclude and oppress and discriminate. I don’t think I’ve read another novel that does this work (Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire comes close, I think, but not as elegantly): it embraces the complexity of our world and the people in it in a way that’s equal parts horrifying and gratifying.
- Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Palimpsest doesn’t touch directly on issues of oppression and discrimination as Jemisin’s work does, but it’s undoubtedly a very queer novel. Palimpsest is a queer city, and it queers the people who come to it.
- Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. This sprawling city fantasy is in part a novel about multiculturalism and integration, and Mieville looks at it from a number of different angles. There’s the experience of Yagharek as he enters polluted New Crobuzon for the first time, and, later on, Isaac’s profound misunderstanding of what his crime means culturally; Lin’s simultaneous discomfort in, and nostalgia for, the khepri ghetto; and the vodyanoi dock workers’ strikes which form a constant background to the novel. Then there are all the entities who are so alien we really can’t comprehend them: the Weavers, with their inscrutable aesthetic sense; the artificial intelligence that is the Construct Council; even Hell’s envoy. It’s a kind of tapestry of ways of seeing the world; again, it’s a novel that embraces complexity.
- The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is just – lovely. It constructs a world founded on the principles of tolerance. There are blind spots, of course: AI rights, some interspecies relationships. There are individual bigots. And there are arguments. But generally it’s a novel full of characters working to understand each other and make space for each other. And I think we also get the sense that the authorities are working to do the same thing, even if it’s a long and difficult process.
- Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I think this is 2018’s Our Tragic Universe for me; I think it’s going to appear on a lot of lists for the foreseeable future. I just, I love its project of queering Victorian history, digging up a past that’s been largely erased by popular culture and popular memory. I love that it takes its lesbian heroine through heartbreak and isolation but knows better than to leave her there. I love that it (re)constructs this whole disruptive queer community in a society we like to think of as straight-laced and prudish.
- God’s War – Kameron Hurley. God’s War has its own problems, not the least of which is that it’s set in an Islamic culture in the throes of a destructive, age-old holy war. Like. I see where Hurley was going with that – it’s important to have SFF that isn’t based on Judaeo-Christian cultures. But it seems like too easy a stereotype. What the novel does have is a whole load of badass women who are unapologetically feminine (even if they’re also ruthless killers) and queer, actual explicit bi representation, and a deeply-rooted portrayal of interracial and international tension.
- Everfair – Nisi Shawl. Everfair was really not my favourite novel: I found it a bit of a slog, and I didn’t get on well with the huge cast of characters and the big chronological gaps in each of their stories. But I also think those things are key to its project, which is an important one. Like Tipping the Velvet, it’s a reclamation of history; it revisits and reworks the colonial underpinnings of steampunk, to create a space for those who lose out from them – people of colour, non-Christians, women and queer people, mainly. And it’s also about how oppression is intersectional, and the relative layers of privilege everyone has, and how those privileges conflict.
- Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee. This is hard SF set in a heavily Asian-inflected society. As in The Fifth Season, the world of the novel is both structurally oppressive and queer-friendly, and there are all kinds of complexities around class. It’s also a novel that revolves around fundamental differences in the way people think about the world, right down to the conceptual level: its dystopian government’s exotic weapons are powered by consensus reality, so to take a different view of the world is to commit heresy.
- The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. I have a feeling that if I read this again I might be dreadfully disappointed, but I remember it as a really interesting take on reproductive rights and feminism in a species for whom giving birth is literally and invariably fatal. (There was also lots of physics. With graphs. I ignored it.)
- Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. You’ll have heard that Ancillary Justice‘s big gimmick is using the pronoun “she” for every character. Which is true, and quite interesting as a device; there are some persuasive trans readings of the novel. But…it’s not really a novel about gender; it’s much more interested in imperialism and how it co-opts the identities of its subjects.
(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
Not counting library books or books lent to me.
- The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
- Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
- Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
- The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
- Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
- S. – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
- What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
- Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
- The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
- The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.
(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy, and I think the only book that’s made me cry so far this year. In an airport. It is devastating and hopeful, bleak and beautiful all at once. It’s a book about climate change and motherhood and the trauma that systematic oppression inflicts on its victims and its perpetrators alike. It’s extremely unusual, to say the least, to find a fantasy novel that’s even half as ambitious and important.
- Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I finished this just today, in fact, and it came pretty close to being the second book to make me cry this year. It’s a novel about a Victorian oyster-girl who falls in love with a male impersonator at the theatre, and follows her to London. Waters is amazing at romantic suspense, at writing the sweet painful bliss of seduction, and I spent the four days it took me to read Tipping the Velvet utterly under its spell.
- Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. The first novel in McGuire’s Toby Daye series was exactly what I hoped it would be: smart and fun and not afraid of dealing with darkness, and set in a version of Faerie that’s magical without being twee.
- What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This is a dense book, a collection of essays delving into the depths of philosophy, theology, history and aesthetics. But it’s worth taking the time and the care to engage with it: it’s a book that advocates empathy, and thorough engagement with the world, and the importance of the humanities in this career-obsessed society.
- Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. 2018 for me has so far been marked by a growing awareness, and a concomitant grief, of just what a parlous state we’ve brought our planet to. Green Earth contributed to that awareness, but it also gave me some hope: hope that maybe we can fix our broken social system and find the political and social will to do something about rampant climate change before it’s too late.
- Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente. Space Opera’s rather grown on me since I finished it and found it a little insubstantial. Sure, it’s a story about Eurovision in space. Sure, its ending is schmaltzy as all get-out. But it’s hard to resist its glitter and its goodwill and its generous, inclusive approach to the aliens who inhabit the galaxy – as well as the humans fighting for Earth’s survival.
- The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente. While I was reading it, I enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues a lot more than Space Opera. But…it’s faded a little in my memory by comparison. Partly I think that’s because it’s a collection of short stories about superheroes, or, rather, the girlfriends of superheroes, women who are “fridged” to advance the stories of men. I see Valente’s point, and it’s well and beautifully made, but I just don’t find superheroes that interesting. And the collection as a whole is a little one-note.
- Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. This is just a fascinating look at how cities have been portrayed and conceived of throughout human history, romping through sources as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, looping round and round its points in a kind of collage without ever quite saying what it means. I’m fascinated by the connections between architecture and literature, so this was absolutely perfect for me.
- The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts. This is a novel I admired more than liked. I mean, I enjoyed reading it; but not as much as I enjoyed nearly everything else on this list. But, like all of Roberts’ writing, it is doing complex, interesting work with genre, and genre expectations, and the headlong splintering of our shared culture.
- Provenance – Ann Leckie. Provenance has this fascinating double structure – just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of things you find a whole nother world behind them. Like Leckie’s Ancillary series, it places a lot of emphasis on identity politics and cultural norms and etiquette. And it does some very heavy lifting in imagining a culture that’s genuinely different from our own Western one, especially when it comes to gender norms and family structures.
(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- Top Ten Characters Who Struggle. This was a great opportunity for me to write about a whole bunch of characters who have emotional or mental struggles that don’t (necessarily) end when the book does. For whom worry and trauma and stress and depression are ways of being, not monsters that can be magically overcome. And they still get to be heroes. They’re still worthy. They’re still awesome. It would be great to see more characters like these ones.
- Top Ten Books for Steampunks. Steampunk is one of my current fascinations. Mostly because I find long swooshy skirts and waistcoats and pocket-watches and dirigibles and the whole aesthetic of Victoriana really cool. And yes! I know steampunk is culturally reactionary and a little bit late capitalist and quite colonialist! I can’t help it. But it does also seem to me that there’s a rebellious undertone to steampunk, that it’s in some way pushing at our notions of Victorian England. And that’s the tension that draws my overthinking overanalysing brain right in.
- Top Ten Queer Characters. It was pretty surprising how hard this list was to write: I feel I’ve read a lot of books with a queer sensibility, if that means anything, but I couldn’t think of that many queer characters. And I kept coming up with characters I’d read as queer who maybe canonically weren’t (Frodo and Sam, Sidra in A Closed and Common Orbit, Stanley’s daughter in Told by an Idiot). I’m pretty happy with the final result, though.
- Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like to Own. I feature this one not so much because of the quality of the finished post, but because of how much fun I had writing it and doing the equivalent of window shopping on the Internet. (I never did buy that Gormenghast print.) Plus, Jay Johnstone.
- Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay. Googling cosplay pictures is never a bad thing. Also, ooh, I’m now re-considering Steerpike for Nine Worlds (and not only because I could potentially reuse bits of last year’s cosplay…)
- Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes. I wrote this, dear gods, four years ago, so I’m not particularly proud of my flippant style, but as for the quotes themselves? Good choices, 19-year-old me.
- Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America. Oh, I remember how angry and depressed I was when I wrote this just after the American elections. FUCKING TRUMP.
- Top Ten Bookish Emotional Moments, or, All the Feels. My list would maybe look a little different now, but I do still love all these passages. (Well. Perhaps not the Thomas Covenant one, which strikes me now as a bit, uh, overwritten. And not in a good way.) And these are the moments I read for, after all: moments of visceral, terrible-wonderful empathy.
- Top Ten Books for Halloween. I just…like all the books on this list? And I think it’s one of my more successful theme posts, partly because almost nothing on here is straight-up horror (I don’t have the stomach for that shit, thanks very much).
- Top Ten Reasons I Love Blogging. Because these are all still true. (Especially the explodey bit. I have however somehow managed to find some more people IRL who will listen politely to my rants though. And really what more could you ask for.)
(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)