I am sitting in bed with a pile of books and a cup of coffee, and it is an absolutely freezing Sunday afternoon and I have no desire to get out of it again. Clearly, the time has come to talk about the eighty-three novels I read in 2009. Like I said before, this was my New Year's resolution - to read, and in doing so, maybe re-establish the habit so the next year I wouldn't have to resolve it. I think it worked. I now feel a little sad that I didn't read for four years, but mostly happy, because I now have those four years' books to read.
So, eighty-three books. Five of them were non-fiction (two autobiographical books, one biography of someone else, one strictly "non-fiction"). Twenty-two of those were by just two authors (Patrick O'Brian and Lois McMaster Bujold), and another twelve were by two more (Terry Pratchett and Naomi Novik). Five were Star Trek tie-ins. I suspect only about fifteen in total had any literary quality, and I had read perhaps (an overlapping) fifteen of them before.
[Note: any links that follow go to my initial reviews of the books, when I first read them.]
So. Let's start with Patrick O'Brian and his epic, epic series of Aubrey-Maturin Age of Sail books. For the uninitiated: they start with Master and Commander
, and feature the many and varied adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey, an officer in the Royal Navy, a bluff, cheerful, man with twin aptitudes for warfare and terrible puns, and his dearest friend, Stephen Maturin, a physician, naturalist, and spy. The books are the most unmitigated fun. ( Read more... )
Next, Bujold and her Vorkosigan series. These are... hard to describe, but in something of the space opera mould, much as I hate that descriptor. Basically, they're about the sometime-future, in which galactic travel is possible through wormholes in space between planets that happen to have them close by. Earth is one of these, but it's not the focus of the books. Instead, we have the planet Barrayar, an imperial, highly militaristic society with a great deal of technology and very little in the way of social change, and into this we bring Miles Vorkosigan, who is the protagonist of most of them. He's an aristocrat, the scion of an incredibly important family, intelligent and dedicated and energetic and, because of an attack on his mother before he was born, physically disabled in a number of ways. He's a very interesting character, and there are space battles, disruptor guns, mercenary fleets and antics galore for him to be interesting at and around. But I'm not really in it for the spaceships and whatnot; I'm in it for the ( Memory )
, by Naomi Novik. I read the whole series this year, and I loved it. The premise is just fabulous: the Napoleonic Wars, with dragons! Sentient, thoughtful, very talkative dragons with complex relationships with humans. Temeraire, the eponymous dragon, has for a captain a former naval officer called Lawrence, and the first book is all about the two of them getting to know each other and the author and the reader getting to know the world, this alternative universe with so much that's familar (in fact, familiar from Aubrey and Maturin!) and strange (the Royal Aerial Corps!). ( Read more... )
And there are other books I wanted to mention, too! Also in the sphere of historical fiction, there was the Lord John Grey series by Diana Gabaldon, which are, weirdly, romance-novel spin-offs. Gabaldon's romance novel series is called Outlander
and is fun, but too replete with the worse tropes of the genre to stick with - too much perfect specimens of perfect manhood, etc - especially as her books are proper doorstops. But Lord John, who exists in the same universe, is much, much more fun. He is an eighteenth-century aristocrat, soldier and sort-of-detective, he's very funny, very likeable, his family is enormous and slightly unhinged, and he's gay. He really is, in uncomplicated fashion; the mystery of the moment is always entwined with whatever nice young man Grey has his eye on. It's pure delight to read, and so far I think Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade
is the best one.
Other books I read this year: oh, The Monsters of Templeton
was a silly but unexpectedly fun family story, Julie & Julia
is a much better book than it sounds, a cooking-blog-turned-memoir that is light, razor-sharp and very engaging, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
made my heart hurt. Mason & Dixon
was baby's first Pynchon and a seven-hundred page delight in eighteenth-century prose, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
was very flawed and very charming.
But the best single book I read this year was, undoubtedly, Doomsday Book
. I've talked about it at length before, and it's not like I'm not hideously late to the party as it is - it was published in 1992 - but this is really special, that sci-fi kind of enjoyable and textured with humour, but deep, sad and rich beneath all of it. It's set in a future Oxford, where time travel has been discovered and is being administered by the university's history faculty and by Balliol and Brasenose. Oxford in 2057 is, well, shockingly like our Oxford in certain ways, and very much unlike it in others, but I get the likeable sense that the changes are cosmetic and technological (admittedly, a Tube station under Cornmarket is quite a change) and that it really is my Oxford underneath.
And in this lovely backdrop, we have this extraordinary novel. The protagonist, Kivrin, is a history undergrad who's making the first trip to the Middle Ages, and Dunworthy, her tutor, doesn't want her to go but can't stop her, and sits at home and worries. ( spoilers get a little more specific from here, but not much more )
I actually wrote my yuletide
story for it this year, and although that's a story about Verity and Ned from To Say Nothing of a Dog
, it's really more for Doomsday Book
in theme and, I don't know, all-pervasive gloom. But I really do recommend it - my initial review of it is here
- and it won the Hugo and Nebula awards for the requisite year, so. You don't have to take my word for it.
So, that was my absolute favourite. The close second, which I actually read in the very last week of the year, was Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex
. It's sort of the story of three generations of a Greek-American family, written in such a fluid, universal way that I can see the underlying immigrant narrative as at once familiar and entirely new, and it's also sort of the story of Cal, who was born twice - as a girl, and as a teenage boy, and how he finds gender identity, and how it finds him. I really, really liked it, for being a novel with something to say, about who you are and why you are, and also for being full of delights, silly names, unexpected witticisms and rolling comedy. (What I thought at the time.
In 2010, I have read two books: The Birthday of the World and Other Stories
, a collection of science-fiction shorts by Ursula Le Guin (some good, some very good, a very few unremarkable) and Silent Snow, Secret Snow
, by Adele Geras, an atmospheric little young-adult thing which I picked up for £2 in the Last Bookshop, and is entirely worth it. I'm now reading yet more Connie Willis, and just finished The Winds of Marble Arch
, a longish short story which is full of despair and longing and also silly jokes, because she's Connie Willis and I love her.
If I ever forget how to read again, remind me.