Another year, another best-of post! Every year I set out to read over a book a week, which isn’t a lot, but it’s something like forty more books than the average person reads in a year. Once again I breezed past my goal, though it didn’t feel like I read very much after June due to a string of vacations and work trips. Last year, I struggled to read anything by July; this year, July was the point I fell off the wagon. Next year’s goal, same as it ever was: work on consistency.
2015 wasn’t a bad year; I read a lot of good books, so much so that I’m having trouble trying to select my tops. In part I’m inclined to like the works I read, if only because I didn’t read as many books “because” something—because they were on a list, or because they were award-winners. I should probably change that—forced out of the comfort zone, expanding horizons, and all that—but really, I’d much rather just read whatever sounds good at the moment, be it something comfortable and fun, or something dark, or something cerebral. And it’s not like I didn’t read a boatload of books I otherwise normally wouldn’t, many of them recommendations by fellow bloggers.
One big shift was getting twice as many advance review copies as I did in the last two years combined. I’m more inclined to request ARCs of vintage/classic stuff, things other blogs hype as potential award nominees, or books by a dozen or so authors I really enjoy. The first are pretty few and far between; the second is subjective, since I’m also inclined to wait until it’s actually won an award; and the third is dependent on a few given authors publishing something this year. I’m usually hesitant to request many review—I’m too much of a mood reader, and too impulsive, so having too many books to review feels restrictive. Besides, I’m torn on marketing someone else’s product with my desire for, y’know, free books. Last year it worked as a way to force me to read more, and this year I went crazier with it. The spike in ARC’s corresponds to the spike in reads from the 1930s, from reading several British Library Crime Classics, the series Golden Age mysteries now distributed by Poisoned Pen Press.
I’d like to thank all those companies for offering the ARC’s, though, since I think they’re pretty swell to begin with and had already bought some great books from each of them over the years: in chronological order, Brash Books, Open Road Media, Poisoned Pen Press/British Library, Dover Publications, Del Rey, Hydra, Solaris, Tachyon Publications, and Subterranean Press. Thanks to groups like Project Gutenberg for digitizing and archiving classic literature to preserve it for the future. Thanks to John DeNardo of SF Signal for those #ebookdeal posts, and to all the blogs/subscriptions that let me know when cool books are available for $1.99 so I can then not read them.
Most of all, thanks to all the commentators and readers who stopped by over the year, all the greats in the blogosphere who blog books. In no particular order, and just skimming the surface: Sergio of Tipping My Fedora; Joachim at Science Fiction Ruminations; the incomparable encyclopedist John Grant at Noirish; Megan at From Couch to Moon (neither a couch nor a moon); Mike, Mike, and of course Mike, though all of them have been busy with their respective occupations; Rich for posts an especially for keeping tabs on classic crime in the blogosphere; Rab and D.J. and other fantasy bloggers, who I follow to keep tabs on what’s happening in that genre; blogs like Schlock-Value, Glorious Trash, and Books That Time Forgot for making bad books funny; Unsubscriber for the cool cover art; and all the people who started blogging about books this year.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Top 7 Speculative Novels
- Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976). A beautifully written pastoral apocalypse, telling the story of a sterile humanity’s attempt to clone itself a future and the post-human clone society that followed. A tale about a mother’s love for her son. A novel about the role of the individual within a larger, uncaring collective. Winner of the Hugo award and other deserved acclaim, all you SF readers owe yourselves to read this damn fine book.
- Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (2014). A serial killer stalks Detroit, killing his victims and attaching them to animal parts and ceramic to make grotesqueries of art. Rich in character and atmosphere, great at blending dark urban fantasy with the palpable tension of horror. An absolute gem.
- Farewell, Earth’s Bliss by D.G. Compton (1972). Exiled from Earth, a group of human convicts is sent to the future’s Botany Bay—the desolate landscape of Mars. Their attempts, both failed and successful, to integrate into the new Martian society offers thought-provoking commentary. The novel lacks action, but makes up for it by strength of character and keen insight into unspoken truths.
- Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). In the balkanized Europe of the near-future, where the EU has come crumbling down into hundreds of polities and micro-states, a series of borders and chokepoints… unless one knows the way around. Rudi, an Estonian chef in Poland, gets sucked into that world of borders as a black-market coureur, uncovering a perilous secret that may get him killed. A fascinating near-future spy thriller, John le Carré by way of Kafka. Not to be missed.
- Pavane by Keith Roberts (1968). Six loosely interwoven stories set in a universe where the Spanish Armada won, where the Church prevailed and left England a backwater nation in an age where technology is forbidden. Pavane takes its name from the processional dance from Renaissance-era Europe, and much like that dance the novel is complex, obscure, and stately, a slow but calculated read with a dark and mysterious undertone.
- The October Country by Ray Bradbury (1955). Bradbury’s earliest tales—ripped from the pulp pages of Weird Tales, an assemblage of the weird and horrific dating back to the early ’40s. It’s a foreshadowing of the author’s future greatness, a strong collection of nostalgic oddities and humane grimness that’s necessary reading for any fan of weird fiction or horror.
- City by Clifford Simak (1952). This is a cheat, especially as I’d read most of the stories years ago, and considered them some of the best SF written in the ’40s before I even read the novel. But Simak’s novel remains an impressive debut, a tale of humanity’s failings driving it to become something more than human, transcending the failures of flesh and ceding the Earth to its servants—dogs and robots—to maintain. Unique for its bitter but pastoral feel.
Heck of a good year. There were a couple others I really enjoyed but couldn’t fit on the list—The Feminine Future was very good; The Pastel City was great but didn’t wow me in the same way the above did; Station Eleven should probably be here, but it’s the last book I read this year, and I’m not sure how much of my adoration for it is because it’s so fresh in memory.
Top 7 Mystery Novels
- The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith (1974). Both the greatest detective novel ever written and a deconstruction of the genre, where its depiction of Chicago as the quintessential American city is some of the most intense and atmospheric I’ve read. A long, loquacious, and heavily stylized novel that uses those elements as its chief assets. A stylistic masterwork, this ambitious novel transcends the genre even as its exists firmly within it.
- The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers (1945). A dark and terrible journey into the human psyche, undertaken via a near-stream-of-consciousness narrator attempting to understand the motives behind several brutal murders and the removal of one victim’s right hand. Simultaneously a Golden Age mystery laying its clues out in front of you, and a mercurial, dreamlike thriller that throws the reader off balance on every page. Perhaps the most unique reading experience you can get—luckily it’s a good one.
- Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes (1945). Hughes wrote stripped-down hardboiled noir that out-hardboiled many of her male compatriots. This one is a psychological thriller about a starlet on a train speeding from Hollywood to New York, terrified that her director is out to kill her. (He is.) The train-car makes a fine confined setting for this cramped parlor drama, with excellent characterization and limitless suspense.
- Bunny Lake is Missing by Evelyn Piper (1957). A first-rate suspense novel about a young single mother whose daughter goes missing on her first day of daycare—and when the mother reaches out to the authorities, nobody believes she has a daughter in the first place. A claustrophobic and paranoid thriller with a unique feminist slant.
- No Good From A Corpse by Leigh Brackett (1952). The queen of pulp SF outdoes Chandleresque noir in this excellent read, a twisty-turny plot that moves at a dizzying pace. It’s the novel that got her a job screenwriting for Howard Hawks, after all, the dialogue and plotting has to be good.
- Resorting to Murder and Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards (2015). The British Library Crime Classics is bringing back so many excellent volumes, but I think some recognition needs to be made of Martin Edwards’ original anthologies for the series, pulling a great mix of famous and forgotten Golden Age authors into these slick volumes. Hard to tell which is my favorite, as there’s many good stories in both.
- Obit Delayed by Helen Nielsen (1952). I was surprised by this slim noir, in which a plucky journalist investigates the brutal murder of a woman. The prime suspect is the deceased’s husband, and while our journalist protag isn’t sure of the hubby’s innocence, he does smell a good story. Some great wit and solid writing make for an entertaining volume. Nielsen hasn’t earned much credit in mystery reference books, so maybe I’m ranking it a bit higher as I wasn’t expecting it to be this good.
I enjoyed almost all the British Library Classics I’d read, and wish I’d made the time to read more. The short fiction of James Cain is also deserving of a nod; I was a fan of his based on his films alone, but his short fiction was fantastic as well. And it’s worth noting that several of this year’s favorite SF reads—Broken Monsters, Europe in Autumn, and Europe at Midnight—may be of interest to mystery/thriller readers.
2015 Reads By The Numbers
Books I read in 2015: 70
Books written by women: 21
Books written by men: 43
Anthologies with more than one author: 6
Books by authors I’d never read before: 39
Books I read that were promotional copies/ARC’s: 26
Longest book read: Death of the Detective, weighing in at an estimated 729 pages (I read the ebook, but it sure felt like 700 pages!)
Shortest book read: Rolling in the Deep, a novella that stands 89 pages long
Total pages read: 16,773 pages
Average book length: 258 pages
My 2014 Readsolutions
Read more books not written in the decades I’ve blogged about the most, the 1950s/1960s.
My reading habits for the past few years has kind of a bell curve that peaks around 1963, and I wanted to expand it out a bit by reading more books from other decades. That was actually pretty hard, as I kept pulling out books on my to-read list, or books that fit one of my other qualifiers, only to find they were written in the ’50s/’60s. Ah well. I think I did pretty well with a wide cross-section across the 20th Century, though I haven’t read many pre-Modernist works since I was in college, all those years ago. (That said, at least three books I read published in the 2010s were collections of stories written much earlier, roughly from the Victorian age through the ’40s.) I’m still underwhelmed by so much written in the ’90s-’00s, though I do recognize a lot of good stuff has been published recently, and pulled some key works from the ’80s (the horror/thriller renaissance decade).
2015 reading list, by decade:
Read more books that aren’t sure things; e.g., by authors who are new to me, in decades/genres I don’t usually read, etc.
Over half of the books I read this year were by authors I’d never read before, though for many of those authors I ended up reading several of their works. As noted by the decades chart, I read about twice as much from the ’30s/’40s and ’80s through the ’10s than I normally do, while also reading from some genres/subgenres I haven’t touched in several years (I used to read a lot more Golden Age mysteries, spy novels, and horror in college). Yet I still had time to pull out a few favorite authors while trying out new ones. I think it was a good balance, but overall this is the most abstract of my three goals and it’s pretty much a wash.
Read more books by women authors.
I blew this one out of the water compared to 2014, when out of 60-some books I read 7 written by women. After starting out so well my gender parity numbers bottomed out, and I only got to 21 versus 44 by men. Most of the year followed that trend, actually; I started off with a list of some sixty books I wanted to read this year and broke some of them down by month or paired them off; I made it through about fifteen books before I couldn’t stick to the list any more, and after that I read maybe 3-5 books on the list… most of those were Halloween reads planned well in advance.
Last year I listed some authors I’d like to read more of; most of them are SF authors for the various challenges and whatnot. I only hit around half of them, including:
- Leigh Brackett – Secret of Sinharat, No Good From A Corpse
- Ursula Le Guin – The Word for World is Forest
- At least two more by Brian Aldiss – The Dark Light Years, Hothouse
- Cyril M. Kornbluth – Not This August
- Robert Sheckley – Dimension of Miracles
- Woman of mystery/suspense – Ramona Stewart, Patricia Highsmith, Vin Packer, Dorothy B. Hughes, Leigh Brackett, Helen Nielsen, Evelyn Piper
- Science fiction anthologies – Universe 3, An Exaltation of Stars, The Feminine Future
- China Mieville – Embassytown, Three Moments of an Explosion
- One timely Ray Bradbury – The October Country (for Halloween)
Looking at 2016
I’ve joined the Philip K. Dick Book Club and Exegesis Readalong that Nikki at Bookpunks is hosting, so expect my monthly quota of PKD to increase 100%—a full list and signup sheet can be found here. So first off, I’d actually like to accomplish that mission, e.g., reading the Exegesis and a dozen other PKD books. Since I normally read based on mood/impulse I figure it’ll be a challenge to stick with a stricter reading list. I’d like to work on my gender parity (still), or at least get to the point where the numbers are within ten of each other.
My immediate reading list for Jan-Feb-March includes a bunch of books I’d meant to read in 2015—mostly authors I wanted to read more of, or books to read and sell/donate so I can free up shelf space. I’d like to read some more D.G. Compton, and I have the last of Jack London’s SF works next on my TBR pile. I’ve also picked up a few ARC’s that looked interesting… mostly horror collections and a Golden Age mystery or two. Beyond that, I’m leaving it more based on whim than anything else.