42 fiction books this year which I’m pretty pleased with, particularly given that all those were new books. 19 had some sort of sf/fantasy slant, 12 I’d label as crime/thriller and the rest were more generic dramas.
One of the reasons that I still prefer buying physical books is so that I can wander the shop, picking books that jump out because of a shiny cover, a curious name, or just to make up the numbers in a deal. When those books turn out to be great, not only is there the joy of a good book, but it’s boosted by the sense of discovery. I’ve had a few successes this year.
I was most impressed by If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, a modern thriller set in the world of Shakespeare and told like a Shakespearean tragedy. It has layers to it that you don’t notice at first and gradually reward you, it’s very cleaver, but also very entertaining. I read two books by Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions and The Corset, both of which I enjoyed immensely as very solid gothic horrors that keep you guessing about whether there’s actually anything supernatural going on. I also read two books by Philip Gwynne Jones, The Venetian Game and Vengeance in Venice which may not particularly raise the bar for crime fiction, but do manage the achievement of capturing the simultaneous romance and tackiness of Venice.
I’ve got a growing list of authors who I’ll return to regularly, either pouncing on new hardbacks, picking up new paperback releases, or just slowly working through back catalogs. Authors that didn’t let me down at all with their latests were Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White), Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London 8: Lies Sleeping), Stephenie Meyer (The Chemist), Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey–Maturin 5) Desolation Island) and Andy Weir’s second novel Artemis. I polished off three books by T Kingfisher, although the two books of the Clocktaur War series really could have been one book, and Summer in Orcus occasionally lost its way. Almost all of those I found pretty impossible to put down.
Even when the old familiars are slowing down, or phoning one in, they get an allowance because of the history we’ve built up. I was slightly disappointed with Taltos 15: Vallista by Steven Brust and I tried one of the graphic novels in the Rivers of London series (Body Works) and the format really didn’t work for me. I may be falling out of love a bit with Claire North, she still has great ideas and vibrant characters, but the storytelling doesn’t quite match, The End of the Day felt like a collection of small ideas/stories forced together and didn’t really work.
A special sub-entry under favourite authors, as I had a bit of a blitz on Agatha Christie, largely thanks to the local library. At her best her works are completely gripping, and even when she’s a bit mediocre they still manage to be engaging and comfortable, with the deaths nicely clean and safe, never really having any kind of emotional impact. Of the five books I read, actually her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was by far the best. A Murder is Announced and Cat Among the Pigeons were both solid entries, but By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Nemesis were a little muddled and not her best.
I usually try to read a few “books that you really should have read” but I didn’t do so well this year, even stretching the idea of what a ‘classic’ is. The most classic (ie oldest) was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne which was stunningly boring. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler at least had a style and turn of phrase that I could appreciate, but still didn’t really blow me away. I gave a James Bond book a try Dr No but found it impossible to get past the sexism.
Stretching the definition of ‘classic’ a bit maybe, I finally got round to reading some of Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes but I continue to not get on with the graphic novel format. I also struggled a little with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré , but on balance think I liked it. The biggest ‘hit’ was probably the first of Zelazny’s Amber series Nine Princes in Amber but even that hasn’t yet inspired me to read the rest of the series.
There weren’t many that I actively disliked, really only 3 that I couldn’t see any worth in – the world of Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin made very little sense and didn’t have strong enough characters to overcome that; The Museum of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister was a mess of different tones, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon chose a 10 year old as a narrator and no one wants to spend this much time in the head of a 10 year old.
The other dozen books fall somewhere in the areas of flawed, disappointing, unremarkable, disposable or just plain ‘fine’.
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran – powerful emotions, but I didn’t actually like reading it
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – I didn’t enjoy being in the head of this character, and I think that was supposed to be the point, but I also didn’t feel particularly challenged making it neither interesting nor entertaining
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero – great idea, not very good writing
One Way by S.J. Morgan – like the miserable, bitter cousin of The Martian
Providence by Caroline Kepnes – a bit too much focus on a relationship I didn’t believe in
Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott – too much going on
The Craft Sequence 1: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – interesting idea not very well told
The Invisible Library, The Masked City and The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman – entertaining enough but not quite anything more than fine.
The Muse by Jessie Burton – predictable story with annoying characters
The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes – solid crime mystery