I've been pretty lax in writing my year-in-review posts for the past several years, mostly because I very often haven't yet written full reviews of the books I want to include. But this time I was determined to put something up at least vaguely within the orbit of the year under discussion (half a month after it ended isn't bad, by my standards...). I'll update it as I have more reviews to link to; but for the time being, here it is.
I read 67 books in 2012, discounting the books I dipped into for day-job purposes but didn't read cover-to-cover.
Of those 67:
- 41 were by women, and 26 by men (a reversal of the trend of the previous two years for which I kept a tally, 2009 and 2008, in which the women/men ratios were 22/38 and 20/35, respectively)
- 8 were non-fiction, of which
- 3 were historical monographs
- 3 were popular histories
- 1 was a fun rant about cinema
- 1 was a multi-author volume of essays (which I reviewed for an academic journal)
- 54 were fiction, of which
- 42 were science fiction or fantasy
- a paltry 4 were translated into English from another language (one from Farsi, one from Hungarian, one from Russian, one from Albanian via French)
- 2 were short story collections
- 18 were read for review elsewhere (all genre publications, which goes some way to explaining the astonishingly high proportion of sf/f in here)
Picking my top ten reads feels unusually difficult for 2012; I've thought about this several times over the past two months, and come up with a different list every time. In the end I've decided to cheat and pick a top twelve, instead. All links go to my reviews (or in a few cases, will go to my reviews, when I write them), posted here or elsewhere:
1) Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
In fact, number one wasn't a hard choice at all; as noted in my review, it was way out in front from more or less the first page, and then stayed there for the rest of the year. A marvellously creepy novel that got under my skin like some tiny, superbly-crafted razor blade, and stayed there.
2) Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: real lives in North Korea
I read this painstaking mosaic of recent North Korean history on a two-and-a-half day train ride from California to Chicago. Safe to say it made for a bit of a contrast with the sun-drenched Rockies beyond the window. Extremely well put together, and with enormous reserves of sympathy for the interviewees whose stories give Demick's recounting its structure and its heart. Review forthcoming.
3) Rana Dasgupta, Tokyo Cancelled
Dazzling patchwork novel: a group of strangers, stuck in an airport when their flight to Tokyo is cancelled, tell each other ever more elaborate stories to pass the time. The tales are set all over the world, and often centre on people crossing cultural, political and emotional borders of various sorts. There's a strong flavour of Borges to many of the stories (and a dash of the 1001 Nights, and a sprinkling of Bluebeard), and rarely do they end up where they seemed to be going at the outset: one is about a man working for a company that edits people's memories, another involves a girl trapped in a cartographer's house, and in a third a billionaire is unable to sleep. Review soon!
4) Margo Lanagan, The Brides of Rollrock Island
Lanagan's writing has always manage to hit where it hurts, and she maintains her reputation with this novel of selkies, solitude and bitter revenge on a remote island. A special mention must also go to Black Juice, Lanagan's excellent 2005 short story collection, which I also read last year.
5) Mark Kermode, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex
For a long-time fan of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's weekly film review show on BBC Radio Five, this was always going to be a treat. Some passages are familiar from Kermode's on-air motormouth rants - a shortened version of the justly famous Sex and the City 2 review shows up, for example, and some of the arguments about the creative and technological bankrupcty of 3D have been well rehearsed before - but the older material is embedded in much fuller (though still characteristically discursive) essays on topics like celluloid, marketing and cinema staffing. Eminently readable, eminently persuasive, and with a love of cinema that beams from every page.
6) Ismail Kadare, Palace of Dreams
My taste for totalitarian dystopias remains undimmed. The titular Palace of Dreams is a vast arm of imperial government, whose labyrinthine corridors, Byzantine procedures and hordes of workers are all devoted to collecting and analysing the dreams of the empire's subjects - all the better to rule them with.
7) Adam Roberts, By Light Alone
Spiky science fictional satire from the master of, well, spiky science fictional satire. Gluttonous, oblivious haves scramble to keep their shiny world clear of brutal, desperate have-nots; all concerned spend most of their time finding ways to get one over on everyone else, while avoiding thinking about the consequences of their actions. Funny and merciless.
8) Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight
Angsty rich people have existential crises in various beautiful European cities. And yet - thanks to Szerb's winning combination of irony and empathy - it works.
9) Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Without Men
Magical realist, or perhaps more accurately absurdist, short novel about the lives of five very different women in 1950s Iran. One woman turns into a tree, another dies twice then becomes a mind-reader, and all of them gather in a garden for a short experiment in escaping men for a while.
10) Kameron Hurley, Infidel
The sequel to God's War broadens and deepens the work of Hurley's punchy, wonderfully uncompromising first novel. It expands our view of Umayma, introducing us to additional cultures on this far-future world colonised by various (divergent, evolved) Abrahamic faiths; it explores the personal consequences of all that kick-ass, eye-catching, first-book action for the surviving characters, and lets them move on with their lives in interesting and necessary ways; and, like any good sequel, it ups the stakes for battered, brutal Nyx and everyone unfortunate enough to fall into her orbit. I'll review this once I've read the third and final book in the series, later this year.
11) Rachel Hartman, Seraphina
Debut fantasy about humans and dragons trying to learn to co-exist as neighbours and as participants in a multicultural society, with all the resultant tensions you might expect and a few you might not. Sounds like fluffy liberal tract of Teachable Moments, but happily I can report that it's much more smart and nuanced than that. Hit much the same spot that Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire did for me a few years ago: it's another emotionally-literate novel of a young woman finding her way in the world.
[Edit: Vicky has now written about this novel here on the blog; I've also edited the link given above so that it goes to the extended SFX review I wrote in February 2013, rather than the original piece from summer 2012.]
12) Natalie Zemon Davies, The Return of Martin Guerre
Another as-yet-unreviewed book. An idiosyncratic, creative microhistory that paints a picture of early-modern France through close focus on the details and implications of one particular - and particularly unusual - court case, centred on a man who vanished from his village one day, the man who took his place and his identity, the woman caught between them, and a host of supporting figures who represent the society around them. Fascinating and stimulating; I have methodological doubts about it, but it certainly stimulates thought.
There are many others that narrowly missed out on a spot in the top ten/twelve. In no particular order, and in many cases with reviews pending, they are: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov (bonkers short Russian novel), The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (stylistically daring sf classic that in any other year would probably be in the top ten, or indeed had I written this post on a different day), Embassytown by China Miéville (typically cerebral sf from the Man Of Many Syllable'd Words), A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (utterly devastating children's novel), Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (now all war to the end fantasy novel), Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra (vast, sprawling Indian novel, reviewed by Vicky here), Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak (short story collection inspired by women surrealist artists; review for Cascadia Subduction Zone will be linked once it becomes available), One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman (atmospheric Arctic exploration tale), Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente (passport to a fantastical city as sexually-transmitted disease)...~~Nic