This is starting to look like an annual tradition.
The way Christmas rolls around and I suddenly remember that I have this blog thing, about books, and that I miss writing it. The way I realise I haven't written a post for months (since May; May!) and berate myself and wonder why because, for goodness sake, it isn't that onerous. The way I take a long hard look at the idea of Eve's Alexandria, almost 10 years old now, and ask myself: should I give this up and retire gracefully? The way that thought makes me feel incredibly sad and I kick myself and determine to write more next year. The way I think: even if Alexandria is hardly a hotbed of blogging action there must be life in the old girl yet. Surely I can do better than May? You won't believe this, but there was a time in the receding past that I used to post more than once a week. Those crazy heady days of my youth; I was 22 years old then. You can do the maths on that one.
Ten years is a long time to invest in something, right? It would be a shame to let it wither without at least a couple more goes. I will try harder in 2016, I really will. I could at least make it to June. Maybe.
In the meantime, let me wipe off the dust and spider's webs and breathe some life back in to the silence. 2015 was a blooming fantastic reading year, especially in contrast to 2014 which (if you remember) was absolutely dire. I've read almost twice as many books - 54 and counting - and that in spite of a three month slump in the summer where I read nothing at all. (This, really, was why I didn't write anything here after May.) Since I picked the reading baton back up in September I've allowed myself to read exactly what I wanted, even when that meant not reading the prizewinners and the bestsellers. I've picked up recommendations and read them immediately - almost unheard of previously - I've read series back to back - definitely unheard of - I've read books in the same genre one after the other - even while my internal book police wagged fingers at me. It's been pretty great to be honest, if not entirely high brow. Freeing to break with my own self-imposed rules, for a little while at least.
Here then are 13 of the best, plus some honourable mentions. First, two writers I have absolutely devoured and adored: Ann Leckie and Maggie Stiefvater.
Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy (The Radch trilogy)
I've paddled around the edges of SF forever but have been wary about committing myself to what I always thought of as the 'proper space stuff', with ships and AIs and aliens. Frankly I was terrified that I wouldn't understand the technical bits and that I'd drown out of my depth. Leckie's multi-award winning Ancillary Justice sounded scariest of all. A main character who is actually a ship in human form? An interplanetary Empire ruled over by a dictator with dozens of bodies? Sounded hardcore. The love heaped on the book was so universal though, and so many people I trust were hotly anticipating the release of the third book, that I decided to try it. Well. What a daft idiot I was for running scared for so long. These books were flipping amazing. I'd no sooner finished the first one than I'd downloaded the second and then the third. I read them back to back and finished the trilogy in a couple of weeks, which I don't think I've EVER done before, even when I was a fantasy gobbling teen.
Of the three, I think the first book is still my favourite, mostly because of the incredibly complex and clever narrative structure. It introduces us to Breq, the last ancillary body of the great Radch ship Justice of Toren, travelling alone on an arctic-like planet in search of a deadly weapon. Leckie interweaves the story of how Justice of Toren was destroyed almost 20 years earlier with Breq's present day mission to kill Anander Mianaai, ruler of the Empire. The life she had before - connected day and night to thousands of pairs of ancillary hands and eyes - is starkly contrasted to the one of solitude, grief and confusion she has now. On the very first page she is reunited with Seivarden, an arrogant noble lieutenant stationed on Justice of Toren over a thousand years earlier, recently thawed from a stasis pod and now a pathetic drug addict. Their relationship becomes the central pillar of the books and, for me at least, one of the most moving stories of friendship, love and trust that I've read in forever.
The most glorious thing about these books is that, while they deal with the truly enormous themes of colonialism, structural inequality and totalitarianism, they never lose an essential joyful and hopeful belief in the power of decency and kindness. While the final book could so easily have been a difficult and painful read Leckie never gives in to total trauma; she keeps her light touch to the very end. Highly, highly recommended to anyone and everyone, especially if space scares you.
Maggie Stiefvater - The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves (Books 1 & 2 of The Raven Cycle); The Scorpio Races
Oh my goodness, my heart. Stiefvater went from a YA author on the periphery of my awareness to the centre of my reading world in about 10 pages of The Raven Boys. The two books in her Raven Cycle that I've read thus far dragged me completely into the quest to find Owain Glendower, the medieval Welsh rebel who disappeared in the 15th century. Set in a quasi magical America, replete with ley lines and ghosts, the story revolves around the relationships between charismatic rich boy Gansey - obsessed with Glendower since a near death experience in childhood - and his trio of best friends, pensive Ronan, self-conscious Adam and nervy Noah. They are on the hunt for Glendower's resting place so that they can wake the Raven King and, to make things go quicker, they team up with local psychic Blue Sargeant who lives with her mum in a house of women with otherworldly talents. Stiefvater's writing is always sharp with observation and her dialogue is powerful, even when it's being funny. I still have the third book Blue Lily, Lily Blue to read before the final book The Raven King comes out in March next year. I've been saving it to read over the holidays as a special special treat.
I picked up The Scorpio Races as a stop gap, never expecting that it would become my book of the year. Set on a remote never-never island where carnivorous super-horses rise out of the sea each November and are raced by vulnerable human riders in a deadly competition on the beach, this story absolutely slayed me. I was madly in love with the romantic leads - determined orphan Puck Connelly and champion racer Sean Kendrick - and with their horses, Dove and Corr, one a normal pony and the other a supernatural capall uisce. As the two prepare to go head to head in the annual races, and the sea continues to roughen and rise, nothing will be the same for either of them ever again. Stiefvater's writing is glorious here too, but much tighter and focused than in the Raven Cycle. I wish I could go back in time and put this in my teenage hands. Highly highly recommended.
Ali Smith - how to be both
This should come as no surprise at all. I think Ali Smith has appeared on my best of lists in every year I've read one of her books. This one though was really special to me, interleaving the voices of grief-stricken 21st century George with that of real life renaissance painter Francesco del Cosa. When I was about thirteen or fourteen my absolute favourite kind of story was time-slip (like Elizabeth Chadwick et al), where a modern day character processes their own emotions by experiencing the life of a counterpart historical character. It's like Ali Smith has given me the satisfaction of that kind of story again here, but with writing to the power of a thousand. I read it George - Francesco the first time around and am really looking forward to revisiting it again someday the other way around. What continues to astonish me about Ali Smith is the balance she can strike between deep thought and giddy irreverence. Oh I love her so much.
Nicola Griffith - Hild
I wrote a review of this one, so I won't say much more. Except that if you like historical fiction and you haven't read this extraordinary novel about the childhood of St. Hilda of Whitby yet, you are really, really missing out. This is going to keep you going while you wait for Hilary Mantel to finish The Mirror and the Light. (The kick being that after you've finished it you then have to add waiting for the Nicola Griffith to write the next book to your list of waitings - it's the first in a projected trilogy.)
Aki Olikainnen - White Hunger (trans. from Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)
This was the year that I finally subscribed to Peirene Press and thank goodness I did or I probably wouldn't have read any books in translation. This is one of those books that I can't say I 'loved' in the traditional sense of the word; enjoyment is the antithesis of reading this short, difficult and harrowing novel about starvation and extremity in 19th century Finland. But it is incredibly humane and profound and moving - you can read my review of it here.
Sarah Hall - The Wolf Border
Sarah Hall is another of those writers that I really trust. Her novel before this one - How to Paint a Dead Man (2009) - is up there with my favouritist books of all time and her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference (2011) is breath-taking. So it was with trepidation that I approached this new book, about a woman who returns to her native Cumbria after years in the States to oversee the controlled reintroduction of the grey wolves. I needn't have worried at all. The Wolf Border hangs on the very edge of the speculative, grounded in the year leading up to the referendum on Scottish independence but with tweaks here and there to our own political reality, and sees Hall return to her native Cumbria in the style of How to Paint but with the steely determination of The Carhullan Army. The writing is intense, precise as always, but with a new maturity to it. I've said before that Sarah Hall always writes a new book as though it was her first. I wouldn't say that about The Wolf Border; instead I'd say that this book is a drawing together of ideas and stylistic trials that sees her bedding down into her own writerly space. More please.
Kate Atkinson - A God in Ruins
I wasn't 100% sure about including this sequel to Life After Life (2013) here because, I'll be honest, there were moments when I really wasn't convinced about the ending. (I know I'm probably alone in that; so many people thought it was the best part of the book.) I'm still not sure about the ending if you haven't read the first book. But the more I've thought about Teddy's life, and the way it interweaves with Ursula's story, the more I appreciate Atkinson's cleverness. And you can't ignore the quality of the prose, which flows along impishly with barely a note out of place. This year I also read Case Studies, the first in the Jackson Brodie mystery series, and it was such a glorious romp that it elevated Atkinson up a level in my personal pantheon of writers to always read.
Naomi Novak - Uprooted
For that cover, of course, and also for subverting the Beauty and the Beast story in such a fun and fearless sort of way. There were things amiss with this fairytale about unprepossessing Agnieszka, plucked from her village as a sacrifice to 'the Dragon', the wizard who keeps her people safe from the evils of the magical Wood next door. It has bizarrely explicit sex scenes, is oddly paced in parts - you think the book has reached a crescendo and then, no, no, there are 300 pages to go - and new characters are parachuted in left right and centre in the final third of the story. But overall it's very beguiling, and it has a happy ending, and it makes me dimple up just thinking about it. I've just discovered Books and Pieces on YouTube and stumbled upon her review of this book; she said that every time she thinks about it Uprooted pulls a new thread in her mind and she changes her opinion completely. Love it, hate it, love it, hate it. I feel that way a bit too. Still, I'm super pleased to have discovered Novik's charm and am looking forward to the film adaptation.
Katherine Addison - The Goblin Emperor
For being an intellectual fantasy novel with dirigibles. Dirigibles! And also for having a hero who is really really nice, and stays really nice despite all of the corruption and meanness that goes on around him. I was super sceptical about this book in the beginning; to be honest I thought it felt a bit... twee. Ultimately though it's hard to resist Maia, the half-goblin prince who finds himself dragged back to court after a childhood in miserable exile when his father and brothers are killed in a freak accident. Crowned Emperor and surrounded by strangers, he finds himself utterly tangled in a way of life that nobody could have prepared him for and, in a shocking turn of events, everything turns out ok. I can't quite describe how it wrong footed the seasoned fantasy reader in me; but slowly slowly all the tension drained out of my body and I let myself drift off on it's sweetness and light.
And honourable mentions go to:
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, The Shore by Sara Taylor and The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke.
What do I learn from that list? Well, as usual my reading this year has been overwhelmingly biased towards female authors: nine of the 54 books I've read were by male writers, which would be scandalous if it were the other way around. I show no sign of getting any better at balancing myself out in this respect. The other striking and obvious thing is that my year has been utterly dominated by white Western writers. Not that I've ever been the best about reading diversely, but 2015 has been particularly bad and that's probably because of letting my biased id run rampant. Three books in translation (thanks Peirene, without you the number would have probably been nil), one by a writer of colour and three with protagonists of colour is utterly dire and blinkered. There has to be a way to combine reading by desire and reading for balance, which I'm going to strive for in 2016. More on that in my reading resolutions next week (I promise).
Happy Christmas, to those who celebrate it, and happy reading to all.