Inexplicably, we’re once again trundling towards the end of the year so it’s time for my annual books post. Goodreads tells me I’ve read 248 books, although that omits the rereads: the Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers that were all I could manage during the worst weeks of Covid, the Murderbot and Kate Griffin reread in Covid recovery, and the huge Terry Pratchett glom after reading the bio.
My romance list is very sparse. This is because, with deep regret, I am excluding all HarperCollins books (which includes Mills & Boon and Avon) since the union, currently on strike with incredibly reasonable demands that the company is ignoring, have asked that people don’t review/promo HarperCollins titles for the duration of the strike. HarperCollins: start negotiating and pay your staff properly because this sucks for staff and authors alike. (I think I caught all the imprints but if I’ve messed up let me know in the comments.)
(It is absolutely fine to buy HC books, the union has just asked for a hold on reviews and promo, btw. Do not boycott.)
Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake. Wonderfully real contemporary f/f, messy characters, super queer, with glorious female friendships as well as the central romance. And very well written, too. A fabulous and hugely enjoyable story of people finding their place and each other. Enormously recommended.
Red Blossom in Snow by Jeannie Lin. M/f romance with a melancholy feel–a magistrate and a courtesan, both of them haunted by their pasts. Low-key a lot of the time but no less passionate and intense for that. The historical detail rings wonderfully true while never overwhelming the story, and it’s a gorgeous understated romance between two hurt people who can stand for themselves but still need each other. The Pingkang li series has got better with every book, and this one is a triumph.
What a Match by Mimi Grace. Absolutely delightful contemporary m/f romance. The tropes are deployed cleverly and enjoyably, the characters are real and terrifically likeable, and the romance feels really well developed. Most of all, the writing is funny, assured, with a light touch and a great line in dialogue, and the editing is top notch (rare and precious). And the cover is gorgeous.
Honey and Pepper by AJ Demas. A new AJ Demas book is always a delight. I adore the alt-ancient Mediterranean world with its cats-in-a-sack politics, sexual fluidity, very dark elements, and wonderfully realised setting. This is the very sweet and tender m/m love story of a cinnamon roll cook and a twisty lawyer-type finding one another, while both coping with their recent freedom from enslavement (very sensitively handled).
A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall. Lovely m/f Regency with a trans woman lead. Starts with a certain amount of angst, none of it centred on the heroine’s transness but rather on the hero’s war trauma and bereavement, then morphs into a delightfully fluffy romp with a delicious secondary cast.
SF / Fantasy
She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I actually read this last December but after my books of the year post, and it’s too good to miss out. Absolutely tremendous alt-historical epic with a touch of magic. A nameless unwanted peasant girl takes on her dead brother’s name to become a monk, a warrior, a leader. Terrific sweep and narrative drive with a beautifully drawn cast.
Kundo Wakes Up by Saad Z. Hossain. A wonderful, strange addition to Hossain’s climate-collapsed world of djinn and nanotech. A strikingly moving story of loss, love, friendship, and building something real in a broken world. Can be read as a standalone, but read the whole lot anyway (start with Djinn City, thank me later).
The Devourers by Indra Das. Proper werewolves. Very intense writing, lush and horrific and physical, about love and exploitation, colonialism and queerness, myth and culture. Magical, compelling, tremendous stuff. I loved it. CWs for on page rape, violence, and body horror.
Dust-Up At The Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Think the Chalet School on Mars, with schoolgirl hijinks aplenty, including here a couple of pupils quietly but determinedly pursuing their own genders. Also, Russian spies, dust storms, midnight feasts, and aliens. Huge fun.
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older. SFF f/f (say that after a drink) with a gaslamp Holmes and Watson on a planet spanned by rails. A magnificently imaginative setting, a nicely developed and satisfyingly resolved mystery, a beautifully understated central romance, and a lot of thought-provoking ideas make this an immensely satisfying read. Does more at novella length than many books manage in three times as much.
The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Absurdly, gloriously entertaining. A story that hits all the beats and tropes you might think, and that’s not a criticism: you read this book with a knowing expectation of what will happen, plus gleeful anticipation for how you’re going to get there. Diverse cast, entertaining banter, lots of good swearing, cathartic dealing with 2020, and just massive enormous-monster-based fun.
The Scar by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. A wonderful read. Intense, slightly dreamlike story structure with marvellous characters, telling a fable about toxic masculinity and how it could just not. It’s a classic fantasy plotwise, and the anti/hero becoming a decent person through his magically enforced cowardice is a profound pleasure to watch. Hugely readable, excellent translation.
Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings. A crappy and chaotic set of space bums and criminals on a junk ship in the middle of a terrible war find themselves 150 years in the future … where they are the sanctified heroes who ended the war. Beautiful world-building and terrific construction of the time travel plot plus a wonderfully human story. This is very much a book about allowing people nuance and failings and redemption: lovely.
Nettle & Bone by T Kingfisher. Classic T Kingfisher – a fairy tale that delves deep into the darkness and horror that underlies those stories, both in sinister magic and in human cruelty. But there is also kindness, and friendship, and love, and hope. A magical tale with high stakes and a lot of humour.
Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. A glorious translation that hits a perfect balance between modern language (“bro!”) and archaisms. Brings gender to the forefront, including the less and more toxic varieties of masculinity, making it feel very much in the vein of the cowboy poet or pub storyteller. Triumphant.
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. I enjoyed this enormously. A disparate group of deserters, criminals and people escaping violence stick together to survive homelessness in unfamiliar, desperate Lagos. It’s a scary world where terrible things happen, but also a place where people can be kind, and loyal, and loving. A hugely engaging read with characters about whom we care intensely, and a really satisfying plot.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Brilliant in the full meaning of the word. Structurally clever and adventurous–two chapters composed entirely of ellipses, which works perfectly. Staggeringly good characterisation of the self-centred, self-regarding, worthless Brás Cubas. Really funny observations. Massive moral heft in the casual asides regarding poverty, slavery, inhumanity. Intensely readable and just so good.
The Movement by Ayisha Malik. Woman inadvertently starts the #ShutTheFuckUp movement, and Non-Verbalism sweeps the globe. In the olden days this would have been called a Novel of Ideas: it’s an intriguing concept, brilliantly explored from multiple angles, with a gloriously sour view of people underpinned by a profound need for improvement and justice. Also highly entertaining on book-publishing bullshit. Funny, absorbing, and thought-provoking.
Vetaal and Vikram by Gayathri Prabhu. Retelling/reframing of a set of Indian stories that have been retold and reframed for centuries by Indian writers, and were then retold and reframed by Richard Burton. The stories are excellently told, with a strong queer sensibility (including trans and queer protagonists, most of them misbehaving because most people in these stories are misbehaving, but with a couple of achingly lovely moments of hope and yearning too) and a powerful feminist feel.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Excellent reportage account of the Theranos startup, aka massive scam. Reads like a thriller, and genuinely shocking.
Vagabonds by Oskar Jensen. Fascinating look at London street life and how the poor survived in the late 18th to late 19th centuries. Social history as it should be: fascinating, inclusive, well-written, passionate, revelatory, and deeply humane. A necessary read if you’re at all into London history.
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Truly horrifying account of the nuclear disaster. There’s a lot of backstory here which is vital in depicting the wider context, and the details of the explosion and its aftermath are compelling, but the book never loses sight of the individual human stories, of people, mostly trying to do their jobs well, who did not deserve this.
The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak. Extremely interesting book on two Merovingian queens. If you don’t have a clue what a Merovingian might be, don’t worry about it, nor did I. Nasty and brutish story of two powerful women scrabbling for supremacy, and very well told with loads of atmosphere and world-building. Fascinating stuff.
The Devil is a Gentleman by Phil Baker. Excellent bio of a hack writer. Dennis Wheatley was a towering figure of popular writing, and pretty much invented the British occult. This is a fascinating deep dive into his life, British publishing, the wine trade, implausible true crime, wartime shenanigans including being part of the deception teams that helped D-Day happen, and the business of being a mega-author. Wheatley himself kind of sucked but this is great.
Africa is Not a Country by Dipo Faloyin. Very well written set of essays covering different aspects of Africa and its relationship with the West. Evocative, vivid, often extremely funny, with biting sarcasm but also immense generosity of spirit, which really makes you read with a sense of hope as well as fury. Compelling reading, highly informative, and highly recommended.
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. A great biography and discussion of the books, but also a dreadful account of what dementia did to a wonderful brain. Intensely moving and deeply upsetting. A great tribute to a marvellous author and very kind/grumpy man.
Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan. A much-more-interesting-than-you’d-think history of the index. Fascinating book stuff, and hands down the best title ever.
Glomming of Obscure Authors
I read a somewhat bonkers ten books by DE Stevenson this year, all of them feelgood, gentle-but-with-an-edge stories set in the 30s to 50s. If you need a place of safety, these are great. Start with the utterly delightful Miss Buncle’s Book, in which a woman of no importance writes a roman a clef about her English village, causing total mayhem but also significant improvements. One of those books you just hide in for a while.
I also read, and I am struggling to believe this myself, eighteen Tommy Hambledon thrillers by Manning Coles, including three I had to order second hand in print (and I have three more in my TBR pile right now). I have no excuses. Spyish stories starting in WW1 and going on till the 1960s with a bit of sleight-of-hand on the main character’s age. If you too have lost your marbles, try the delightful Without Lawful Authority, the story of a disgraced Army officer who meets a burglar (officer class but down on his luck), as they form a dynamic duo who go after Nazi spies in the run up to war. A bit of regrettable period-typical bigotry, sadly, but 97% fun.
I would also commend Now or Never, a bonkers post-war one which is not such a good book overall but which does have the spectacular recurring secondary characters Campbell and Forgan, a heftily coded gay couple who make model trains for a living and annoy Nazis/bad guys/the police for a hobby. They’re introduced in the fantastic A Brother for Hugh/An Intent to Deceive but that hasn’t been digitised, inexplicably. I’m going to stop talking about this now.
If that isn’t enough books for you, try Masters In this Hall, by me, out now!