Wednesday 29th December: I didn’t get round to writing about my year of reading last year so I’m going to get it out of the way first this time.
As most people who know me are aware, I have had a huge “to read” pile of novels, biographies and short story collections for some time now and, therefore, rarely buy new books of those sorts, relying on birthday and Christmas presents to help me complete series that I have already started. That means that I can’t have a favourite book published in he last year and the following is limited to what I read in 2010, whenever it was published.
In the last year, I finished thirty-five books, with a final one expected to be completed before the end of the year. I also received eighteen, meaning that the pile should have reduced to ninety-three by the start of 2011. As usual, most of my reading has been science-fiction or fantasy (or at least related to the genre) with only a small-press history of female comic characters – the excellent, if somewhat fannish, Supergirls, by Mike Madrid – being even slightly removed.
Getting the disappointments out of the way first, I have to mention Kate Elliott’s Crown Of Stars saga, an ambitious seven volume fantasy series which I found very dense and lacking in action, with a cast of characters that you needed a notebook and family tree to keep track of. Consequently, I seemed to take forever to read it and, if reading becomes a chore, it’s obviously not enjoyable. My biggest disappointment, however, was Shelters Of Stone (2002) – the fifth volume of Jean M. Auel’s prehistoric Earth’s Children saga (in which lead character Ayla seems to invent everything from the domestication of animals to sex). It’s been a while since I read the fourth volume (Plains Of Passage, 1990) and the huge gap in publication may have contributed to the fact that all that seemed to happen in this volume was that Ayla and Jondalar finally arrived back at the latter’s home cave and reiterated everything that had gone before, before setting up the final volume, due next year.
In terms of fantasy, I’m not going to choose Neil Gaiman’s Stardust as my favourite of the year, primarily because I have read it before, albeit in a different format (it was originally published as four “comics” and later collected as a trade paperback, both released by DC Comics). Nor am I going to choose the solid Soldier’s Son trilogy by Robin Hobb, which I enjoyed immensely, but only because I read a rare single-volume fantasy by somebody much less prolific, which was superb. War Of The Flowers by Tad Williams may not be completely original but it has enough new ideas in it to be a refreshing read. Part urban fantasy, part “fish out of water” story and part Faerie tale, it provided a new take on the world of the Fey. Exciting in places, scary in others and, it has to be said, obvious in some, it did what a good book should do – kept me entertained (and, at times, amused) for the whole read and I would recommend it to anybody with even the slightest interest in fantasy.
Science fiction has been going through a bit of a boom period recently and I am now catching up with some best reviewed books of the last few years, as well as some older ones. I finished reading my stack of SF Masterworks some time in 2009, so I didn’t read any of the so-called classics this year. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap cycle, which I completed after reading the first, rather slimmer, volume some time ago. Donaldson has a reputation, I believe, for unlikeable characters and the first volume put me off reading the rest a bit as it contained both the physical and mental rape of one main character by another. So, when I finally got hold of the remaining volumes, it was with some trepidation that I started reading them. Unfortunately, there was still a lot of nastiness but, as the story went on, the target character grew past it and I became somewhat inured to it (perhaps a sign of good writing or perhaps a sign of numbness, I’m not certain) and from struggling through volumes two and three, by the time I’d finished all five, I realised I’d read a cracking if flawed space opera. Indeed, it’s space opera that dominates my favourites of the year. Peter F. Hamilton is one of the new British masters of the genre and the first part of his Commonwealth duology, Pandora’s Star was almost a sure thing for my book of the year. However, because I don’t like selecting parts of a series as my favourite – it’s the whole or nothing – it was let down by the second volume, Judas Unchained, which, although containing more action, was more of a struggle to get through, again due to the number of characters and the factions they represented. Hamilton also seemed to have forgotten that having distinctive names helps those of us with limited thinking power to keep track – I mean, three characters called Ozzie, Orion and Oscar… come on! Also, towards the end, the action got a wee bit too complicated and I struggled to keep up with who was wear, fighting with whom and for what. So, my favourite SF novel goes to Matter, the 2008 entry in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. I’m not a huge Banks fan and have found some of his Culture stories frankly dull. This one, however, was brilliant in its weaving together of two stories which eventually came together as one with an ending that was unforeseen and yet, in hindsight, extremely obvious.
My overall favourite book of the year, though, is one I haven’t even read yet….
I’m a sucker for coffee-table style books on various subjects, especially the history of American comics. This year was DC Comics 75th anniversary and Taschen published the massive (so big it comes in its own carrying case and would probably cause our coffee table to collapse) 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Mythmaking in celebration. With text by Paul Levitz, who has been associated with DC for over 35 years, this is a treasure trove of rare art and photos from the entire history of the company. My copy of the book arrived today and I spent most of the afternoon browsing through it and trying to stop the drool from falling onto it. It’s a lovely thing to look at and I’m sure that the text will live up to expectations. Well worth the price. (Don’t ask…)