Another year has passed with lots of books read. My first thoughts on 2014 is that it was inferior vintage to 2013, but looking at my running list of best books, I see there are 17 this year compared with last year’s 18. Almost no difference, yet I still feel that this year wasn’t as good as the previous twelve months. I think it’s because this year there has has been a lack of consistency in quality. I’ve read a number of books that are merely OK and more books than usual that are downright terrible. I’ve read some good books this year, I’ve read some great books, but I’ve read more books than usual that I hope never to see again.
Let’s forget the bad, and talk about the good.
My best books this year are dominated by science fiction and fantasy, and it’s perhaps appropriate that the one non-fiction title on the list (and indeed probably the only one I read this year) is Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Good, a collection of essays from TOR.com in which Walton rereads some of her favourite books. The anthology is a wonderfully enthusiastic peon to books and reading. There were books I’d read, books I wanted to read, books I’d never heard of and now want to read, and the occasional book I’m not going to read even if you paid me. It added about fifteen titles to my TBR pile and prompted me to start my own one man book club. This led me to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, conveniently reissued by Headline. This is a time travel novel that explores attitudes to slavery and the insidiousness of oppression. It’s every bit as good as Walton said it would be.
Ian McDonald’s Everness series has given me a great deal of pleasure this year. All three books are highly entertaining. These are aimed at the YA market, so zip along. McDonald’s device gives him the opportunity to create billions of alternate Earths, where almost anything can happen. He makes great use of this, delivering the unexpected, the intriguing and the downright scary. An altogether more serious science fiction read is Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark. Set in the near future, the book chronicles the struggle of an autistic computer savant as he tries to navigate a world he is one step disconnected from. Thought provoking and moving, the book debates whether autism is a curse or a blessing, and if it could be cured, should it be?
This year is the year in which I finally found some Fantasy novels that made me happy. Richard Ford’s Shattered Crown and Jen Williams’ Copper Promise are epic fantasies cut from the same cloth as David Gemmell. But where Gemmell fashioned the same pair of curtains over and over, these two have run up something altogether different, pulling swords and sorcery firmly into the twenty-first century. Excellent characterisation with mixed motivations, and interesting plots blended with bowel loosening excitement made these hard to put down (except to prevent the occasional accident). The Shattered Crown is sequel to the equally good, Herald of the Storm and the Copper Promise has the best depiction of a dungeon crawl I have ever read. It had me itching to play D&D right then and there (for those unsure, this is a compliment).
Away from SFF, there were slim pickings. 2014 saw a slump in the amount of non-genre fiction I read. Since starting the blog, I seem to have returned to my reading roots. This is perhaps because the SFF community is so vibrant on Twitter. I keep hearing about so many good books, that I just want to keep reading them. Backed up with some very lovely people in PR departments prepared to let me loose on their books, and I have lots of easily accessible speculative and fantastic fiction to sink my gnashers into.
Eliott Hall’s Chandleresque The Rapture is excellent detective noir, but as it’s set in the near future, it doesn’t really count as being away from science fiction. I read bestselling juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars and was as bewitched as everybody else. I also read Matthew Crow’s British take on the bastard that is cancer. In Bloom is not as artful as Green’s novel, but to me it seemed more real. It’s a deeply moving portrait of illness, but above all it’s about the power of family love and the bond between brothers. A slim and deeply affecting read.
Another slender novel is Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted. It’s brutal and unflinching and not at all comfortable to read. A devastating critique of the American penal system, The Enchanted ought to be compulsory reading for anybody charged with the care and rehabilitation of people sent to prison. Tim Leach made a welcome return to my reading list, with his follow up to his peerless historical novel The Last King of Lydia. The King and the Slave is a direct sequel, and whilst it didn’t quite reach the heady heights of its predecessor, Leach showed once again how to make ancient history read like current affairs.
All of these novels were good. They gave me great joy to read, but in 2014 four books towered over the rest. I find it almost impossible to rank them, but I think one just about pips the others to the post for my novel of the year.
The most readable book of 2014 was Andy Weir’s The Martian. A book I almost didn’t read. It is science fiction in its purest form. Fiction about science. Robinson Crusoe on Mars; survival in a unbelievably harsh environment, with little more than ingenuity and disco music to help it’s hero survive. It is the closest thing to unputdownable I’ve read in many a year.
Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s seamless, like a master-worked puzzle box. I could only marvel out how the novel’s variety of influences and themes dovetailed together without any visible joins. It’s a story within a story; a Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz imagines an alternate Earth where Hitler is ousted from power and is now a private detective in pre-war London. It shouldn’t work but it does, brilliantly and it elevates Lavie Tidhar towards the the top of my must-read author list.
Jo Walton probably crowns that list right now, not only for 2012’s beautiful Among Others, but for this years equally sublime My Real Children. A Sliding Doors novel where acceptance or not of a marriage proposal leads a young woman down very different paths. Both narratives take place in familiar yet alien realities, and like Tidhar’s novel, the real and the unreal blend seamlessly. A wonderful portrayal of love in all its forms, this novel is science fiction for people who hate science fiction.
And the winner is…
My final choice, and therefore my book of 2014 is Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene. A second world fantasy, set a in world without heroes. The novel centres around the wonderful Smiler’s Fair, an endlessly travelling carnival, that brings with it joy, and leaves despair in its wake. It’s a genesis story, that examines the power of myth and how it might be established. It has a host of characters all brilliantly realised and its plot is fresh, innovative and very clever. By the end I was utterly enthralled. Despite casting aside many of the genre’s conventions with a success few authors achieve, it also manages to be comfortingly familiar. Something about Levene’s style reminded me of my teenage addiction – The Belgariad by David Eddings. Levene reworks Eddings’ black and white simplicity to give it multiple shades of grey, all the time remaining wonderfully readable. The resulting novel made me feel like I was thirteen again, had me enchanted throughout and leaves things on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that leaves me desperate for book two.
So there it is a rambling account of my literary year. If you made it this far, thank you for reading. If you are one the lovely PR people who sends me books, many many thanks for supporting my habit. If you’ve been following the blog, thank you again. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and maybe discovered some books that you otherwise mightn’t. I hope 2015 brings you all many exciting reads, and I’ll continue cataloguing mine here. As one recent commenter urged me to do, I’ll ensure I keep being honest.
Thanks for reading!