We’re close enough to the end of the year that I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon and call my reads of the year. I make no apology for reading books years after they were published; I’ve been pointed at some cracking older works this year, and they get their full share of love – these are my top ten reads of 2015. My 2016 resolution is to have a more up-to-date reading list (although I don’t promise to like the newest books best).
I only dished out 5 stars to 1 work of fiction this year, which makes my book of the year rather easier than usual. It’s been a great reading year, with just 2 abandons and only 3 books falling into the ‘must try harder’ category (fewer than 3 stars). Over 40 scored 4 stars or higher, so honestly? I’m a bit smug. It’s been good. 2016, you’ve got a lot to live up to!
Without further ado and in no particular order, the books that really got me going (links back to my original reviews):
The Girl With All The Gifts – M R Carey
2015 saw me slightly biased towards works by women (roughly 60/40), but Carey’s take on the apocalypse consumed New Year’s Day and stole a place on the top ten before anyone else even got a look-in. I do love a good apocalypse novel, just as I love cleverness – there’s plenty of both here. I’m not sure how they can make a movie without ruining the premise, but I’ll be lining up for a ticket anyway. For those few who haven’t read it yet – do. Really. It’s fabulous. And if you haven’t been spoiled, don’t find out another thing before you pick it up (NB my review is spoiler-free).
Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
I came very very late to The Hunger Games, and read them in part because the film annoyed me. I decided that a world of fans couldn’t be wrong, and as soon as I picked up the first book I realised they were right. The trilogy is excellent, and I found the final book the strongest of the three. I loved it for exploring the psychological impact on its protagonist, for its relentless cynicism and for not flinching away from a bleak ending. The films watch rather better with the books as context; I now enjoy the tale in both formats.
Orthe (Golden Witchbreed / Ancient Light) – Mary Gentle
I joined a read-along of the Orthe books, having never read Mary Gentle and was swept away by the epic world-building and the intimate character relationships. These books work even better if you read them fully-conscious of when they were written – while Golden Witchbreed is a satisfying planetary fantasy regardless, Ancient Light has more resonance in the context of 80s politics. I will admit to shedding a tear at the end.
I’m reading more short stories these days, and this was my favourite collection of the year. It also introduced me to one of my now-favourite authors, Zen Cho. If you like your stories charming but spiky, look no further – these tales of spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural beings are beguiling, belligerent and refreshingly forthright. I liked this collection even more than Sorcerer to the Crown, which I liked a great deal.
The Time of the Dark – Barbara Hambly
This classic portal fantasy is my first foray into Barbara Hambly’s work, and I’ll certainly be back for more. While a little slow to start, it won me over with its fluid style and finely-drawn characters. It’s easy enough to pick holes (just how did academic Gil get so fit so quickly?), but it’s a fine example of a certain type of story with plenty of charm and creepy thrills and I loved that the female protagonist wasn’t forced down a romantic route. I remain amused that fear of the dark drives more than one of my favourite stories this year.
A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
No prizes for those who guessed this would make my shortlist, given the gushing during the recent read-along. There was no way I could resist the Firefly ensemble cast or the surprisingly low-key adventures – I’m not big on hard SF, and I’m delighted to trip over a novel that’s more interested in fixing the engine and making dinner than it is on galaxy-spanning drama. Also, Sissix. Sissix. Sisssssiiixxxxxx.
The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard
I’ve been intrigued by de Bodard’s short fiction this year, but oddly reluctant to try her Aztec noir. She came to my rescue with this irresistible angel mystery set in post-apocalyptic Paris. It’s firmly alternate reality not alternate history, as it turns out, and it’s wonderful for its vibrant characters and meaningful consequences. I can’t wait to read the sequel currently in the works. As with Zen Cho, Aliette de Bodard has leapt onto my favourite author list with aplomb and I might now have to go find her Aztec novels to keep me going until House of Binding Thorns comes out…
It’s taken me several years to get my hands on Lifelode as it never got published in the UK. That’s a great shame, because this unusual experiment is bold, enchanting and refreshing. Focusing on the domestic sphere, it provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of a close-knit rural family in a world where magic is mundane (in the way electricity is mundane). When the action eventually kicks in it’s shocking by contrast, but the real joy here is in the relationships on page. Heart-warming.
Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Props to Zen Cho for being the only author to snag 2 spots in my top ten! Her Regency fantasy replaces the Royal Institute with equally snobby magicians determined to bring as much class politics as possible into their genteel amateur profession. Zen Cho presents observations on class, race and gender in light-hearted prose that owes much to Jane Austen, then stirs in the unsettlingly dark elements that I think of as her trademark. Bonus points for the fabulous Mak Genggang and Aunt Georgiana.
And my read of the year:
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
I have a huge weakness for apocalypse fiction, and it’s a rarity to find it with a female protagonist. Emily St John Mandel may have been a bit sniffy when accused of writing genre fiction – she wants to write literature, darling – but her novel is a masterpiece of speculative fiction. Set 20 years after a pandemic, the few survivors have rebuilt small communities in an empty world. Travelling through the ruins with a Shakespearean troupe (yes, she had me at hello), we glimpse hope, compromise and humanity cut with nostalgic flashbacks to the nights before the fall. This is lyrical stuff that favours drama over gore, and explores the unexpected links that bind us together. Plus a lot of spooky empty landscapes, desperate societies and decaying resources. What’s not to like?
Over in the world of non-fiction…
If Station Eleven was my only whole-hearted 5-star fiction read of 2015, it wasn’t the only 5-star read. Unusually for me, I also gave 2 non-fiction outings 5 stars. I include them here for your consideration – separate to my top ten, which is purely fiction-focused.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fascinating character and an excellent writer. Her autobiographical account covers her childhood, the Somali civil war, her time as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and her subsequent life in exile in Holland – where she became a Dutch MP and eventually a target for her outspoken views on Islam. It’s riveting stuff that I found challenging and thought-provoking. Ayaan’s politics are more rightwing than mine, but some of her positions are hard to argue with (even if I don’t always agree with how she expresses them). I’ll be reading the sequel, Nomad, next year.
If you love science and you love comedy, you’re probably well acquainted with XKCD (if not – go get acquainted). Randall’s secondary focus – giving broadly scientific answers to ludicrous questions submitted by the interwebs – is collected here for the first time. Science with stick figures and dodgy footnotes. It’s pure joy.
I’ve read over 70 books this year, many of them (as noted above), very good. A few deserve a nod even if they didn’t make the top ten.
James Smythe gets a nod for the first 2 entries in the Anomaly series (The Explorer / The Echo), which I much preferred to crowd-pleaser The Martian (NB expect science closer to Sunshine). I really want these to be better than they are, and I find them more engaging and provoking than perhaps they deserve. Ooh, backhanded compliments. Still, I can’t wait to read book 3.
Richard Morgan for The Dark Defiles, which is an excellent (and appropriate) end to A Land Fit For Heroes and includes what may be the most effective bit of fan trolling in a while. This is the first time one of his novels hasn’t made my best of in the year in a while. Sorry, Richard. I do still love you.
Lastly, nods to Lawrence Norfolk for John Saturnall’s Feast and Elizabeth Gilbert for The Signature of All Things, the only non-genre fiction 4 star reads in a year of heavily genre-focused reading. I enjoyed both these books for very different reasons, if ultimately less than I enjoyed the rest of my top 10.
Enough reflecting. ON! TO 2016!