My year in books

There seem to have been quite a lot of books this year. Like, er, cough, about 235 of them, which is rather more than last year’s 207 let alone 2005’s 137. 81 (34%, same as last year) were non-fiction; 44 (19%, same as last year) were by or edited by women; 123 (52%, slightly up from last year) were sf, fantasy, or somehow related to the genre. In the list below the cut-tags, books in bold are the ones I gave five stars to on Librarything.


Fifteen of the 81 non-fiction books will be discussed in later sections. Of the other 66, about a quarter were more or less related to my work, including back-to-basics with The Republic and The Art of War. The Iraq conflict generated two general reflections (Independent Diplomat & Diplomacy Lessons) and one more specific account (The Iraq Study Group Report). More locally, I read five books concentrating on the Balkans (The Three Yugoslavias, Endgame in the Balkans, Athens-Skopje: an uneasy symbiosis, Μακεδονία: a Greek term in modern usage and Democratisation in Southeast Europe), one taking Eastern Europe more widely (Reclaiming Democracy) and one on Cyprus (Reflections on the Cyprus Problem). Looking at contemporary Europe, I read one rather poor book about the EU (Machiavelli in Brussels) and four good ones, Missed Chances, Rethinking Europe’s Future, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century and the best of this section, Chris Patten’s memoir Not Quite the Diplomat.

Ten books were related to scienceGeorge and Sam, about autism in the family. Also medical related were MMR: Science & Fiction and The Discovery of the GermVicious Circles and Infinity), one on engineering (To Engineer is Human), one history of astronomy (Asteroids), one largely about the recent history of science (The Nobel Prizes), one on science in 17th-century Ireland (Science, Culture and Modern State Formation), a general collection of short pieces (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) and Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything.

Most of the other non-fiction I read was purely historical. Apart from Science, Culture and Modern State Formation, four other books were on Irish history, all a bit marginal: a life of Parnell, an annotated history map of Belfast, a book on the 1916 Rising and (the best) a catalogue of political posters. Irish-related, but further afield, I followed my grandfather to Gallipoli and Macedonia. (In the latter case, literally as well as through the printed page.)

I read four books about American presidents of the early twentieth century, of which the best was Charles Willis Thompson’s Presidents I’ve Known and Two Near Presidents, though Starling of the White House runs it close for charm. The other two books on the period, William Howard Taft and 1912, were less impressive, and the more general What Ifs?™ of American History was very patchy indeed. While I’m that side of the Atlantic, but a good deal further south, I also read The Shadows of Eliza Lynch.

Looking at the Middle East, I read two books about the origins of Islam, two about the Desert Fathers, and William Dalrymple’s brilliant From the Holy Mountain. Not too far away geographically is Islam in Azerbaijan, and slightly further but still related Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali (which includes a fascinating character study of the late Benazir Bhutto).

Coming back to European and British history, let’s start with the Megalith Builders, then go on via the Dark Ages to Latin Palaeography, pause to consider both William the Silent and his Awful End, look forward a few years later to 1599, and finish with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s two superb travel books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

I do like biographies and autobiographies. Already noted above are volumes on Charles Stuart Parnell, William Howard Taft (and other presidents of his era), Eliza Lynch, the prophet Muhammad and William the Silent, and autobiographical memoirs by Carne Ross, Brady Kiesling, Roy Denman, Chris Patten, Charlotte Moore and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Two more are reserved for a later section; here I’ll note my distant relative Frederic Whyte’s Life of W.T. Stead and sketches of 19th-century actorstwentieth century character sketches, Neville Shute’s autobiography, and two real classics: Alicia Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.

I got two recipe books during the year; Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food was inspiring, but I have not really got to grips with The Medieval Cookbook.

Non-fiction anthologies: I enjoyed Primo Levi’s The Search For Roots but completely bounced off 800 Years of Women’s Letters, one of two books I simply abandoned this year.

Personal development books: not as many as in some previous years. Loved The Elements of StyleAfter Dinner Speaking.

Fiction (non-genre)

I read 27 novels which were not sf, fantasy or mystery in genre (the same number as last year, but down to 16% from 18%). The big push here was to make a start of Proust, and I read volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 of In Search of Lost Time. The two other general fiction books which I most enjoyed were Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Iain Banks’ The Steep Approach to Garbadale (I also read and enjoyed his Dead Air). Other good books: Steppenwolf, The Successor, Bel Canto, Starter for Ten, Once in a Blue Moon and Three To See the King, Faith, Main Street. Books that didn’t quite overwhelm me: The Nero Prediction, Barchester Towers, Palace Walk, Oscar and Lucinda. Books I didn’t like: The Book of Proper Names, The Mill on the Floss, The Awakening, Kaddish for a Child Unborn, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., Vineland, The Catcher in the Rye. Novel so bad I couldn’t finish it: Wilt in Nowhere.

Fiction (mystery)

Three Alexander McCall Smith (In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, The Kalahari Typing School for Men and The Full Cupboard of Life) and one other (Murder at the Worldcon). Nothing spectacular.

SF + fantasy

107 novels and anthologies, though I am reserving 30 of them for a later section.

Novels: I re-read five old favourites: A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow / Blood and Gold, At Swim-Two-Birds, and Brave New World. The new novels (to me, at least) that I enjoyed most were Blindness, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, The Prestige, The Female Man, and (among the relatively newer publications) Carnival, The Children of Húrin, Wintersmith, Beguilement and Legacy. Also good: Stardust, Nebula-winner Seeker, Glasshouse, Tau Zero, The Tin Drum, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Spin State and Spin Control, Blind Voices, Pile, The Guardians, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Kill or Cure, Coyote Dreams and Urban Shaman, The Satanic Verses, Princess of Mars, Last and First Men, Something Rotten, Ralph 124C 41+, Hugo-winner Rainbows End, Temeraire, Eifelheim, Idolon, Northern Storm, No Present Like Time, City of Illusions, Dhalgren, Gilgamesh, The Mabinogion, The Way to Babylon, Master of Earth and Water. Genre novels that didn’t quite overwhelm me: Blindsight, Living Next Door to the God of Love, Singing the Dogstar Blues, Mindscape, The Shore of Women, The Druid King, The Secret Visitors, Darkness Audible, Harpist in the Wind. Genre novels that I didn’t like: Catalyst, Variable Star, Sourcery, Mutiny In Space, First Lensman, Recursion, The Mind of Mr Soames.

Anthologies: I read eight (one reserved to later), and liked Backdrop of Stars, Glorifying Terrorism, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (which just about fits being an anthology rather than a collection) but was less impressed on the whole with Writers of the Future vol XIX, Eurotemps, and Alternate Worldcons.

Collections: I reread Asimov’s Earth is Room Enough, but particularly enjoyed two very different collections: Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things and Bob Shaw’s A Load of Old BoSh. I also read and enjoyed Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde, less so Harlan Ellison.

Related: I read/listened to fifteen sf-related non-fiction books, though I am reserving all but one of them to a later section. The one other was The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod.



I read twenty comic books/graphic novels this year. Three of them are reserved for discussion under the final section. Of the other 17, I felt that Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was in a class of its own. I also especially enjoyed both Blankets and Halo and Sprocket: Welcome to Humanity. I liked Caricature, Albion, The Last Temptation, 100%, The Invisibles #1 and volumes 1, 2 and 3 of Alias. Much less overwhelmed by Pussey! and Diary of a Teenage Girl3, 4, 5 and 6 of Preacher, but ended up deciding I didn’t actually like it that much after all.

Doctor Who

44 of my year’s total of books – 19% – were related to Doctor Who: 30 fiction (16 novelisations of broadcast stories, 9 spinoff novels, one unbroadcast script, one spinoff anthology, and 3 comics), 12 books about the series in general and two memoirs by actors from the show (incidentally, the only two audio-books per se that I listened to during the year).

Of the novelisations, the best were Donald Cotton’s Doctor Who – The Gunfighters and Terrance Dicks’ early Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster and Doctor Who and the Planet of the Spiders, and David Fisher’s Doctor Who and the Leisure Hive. I also enjoyed Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks, Doctor Who – Galaxy Four, Doctor Who – The War Machines. I was less grabbed by Doctor Who [the novel of the film], Doctor Who – The Savages, Doctor Who – The Ark, Doctor Who – The Massacre, Doctor Who – The Celestial Toymaker, Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, and Doctor Who – the Caves of Androzani, and I thought Doctor Who – The Aztecs was a very poor reflection of a decent story.

Of the spinoffs, I’ll start with the two which are not novels: the Decalog 3: Consequences anthology, and Anthony Coburn’s unpublished 1963 script, The Masters of Luxor both of which are fun. Of the novels, I enjoyed most Steve Lyons’ Salvation and David Bishop’s Who Killed Kennedy? which attempted to being some closure respectively to the beginning and end of the story of Dodo Chaplet; other good ones included Sting of the Zygons, Bunker Soldiers and The Man in the Velvet MaskThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Made of Steel, The Eight Doctors (though I didn’t hate it as much as most people seem to) and City at World’s End.

I really enjoyed both Colin Baker’s comic story, The Age of Chaos, and the Pat Mills stories from The Iron LegionThe Official Annual 2008 is not really aimed at my audience segment.

Tom Baker’s memoirs are a real hoot; Nicholas Courtney’s less so.

Of the non-fiction books about Doctor Who, pride of place goes to the About Time series, of which I read the 1963-1966, 1966-1969, 1975-1979, 1970-1974 and 1980-1984 volumes during the year. Apparently the least satisfactory third volume is to be republished in expanded form; also I am looking forward to getting the sixth (and last). Perhaps better value in terms of brainpower per buck, but obviously less comprehensive, is Time And Relative Dissertations In Space, edited by David Butler. For the younger fan, Doctor Who: the Visual Dictionary is recommended. I also liked Licence Denied , Talkback – The Sixties and the classic first edition of The Making of Doctor Who, but was less impressed with Back in Time and Who’s Next.

Books of the year

George and Sam, an account of parenting two children with autism (and one without); James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the extraordinary story of the famously pseudonymous sf writer; Wild Swans, about China in the twentieth century; A Time of Gifts/Between the Woods and the Water, walking across Europe in the 1930s.

Proust, especially vols 1 and 3.

SF + fantasy
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors were a truly superb discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin was a welcome comeback from an author dead for a third of a century. The best sf novel, as opposed to fantasy, that I read was Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival.

Doctor Who
The About Time series, erratic in places, are consistently enjoyable, enlightening and entertaining; and Tom Baker was the only person to make me laugh out loud on the train.

Book of the year
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, strongly recommended to everyone; a superb tale of a dysfunctional family, dealing with sexuality and great literature and love and death. We’ve had guests in our house queuing up to read our copy, and you will too.

One thought on “My year in books

  1. Ah, I read The Grapes of Wrath earlier this summer. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

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