Happy New Year!
I hope you all had a good year’s reading in 2014 and are now busily erecting your 2015 TBR piles. Mine is already happily teetering. I finished my GoodReads Reading Challenge for 2014 on 156 books and have now set my 2015 target as 116. I don’t want to set it too high, mostly because I don’t want to be frightened by it. I’m easily intimidated. But I do have a few reading resolutions for 2015.
Firstly, I want to read more books that I might not have considered reading a few years ago. I want to expand my reading. Not at the cost of historical fiction and science fiction, which are my own true loves, but in addition to those. I dabbled a bit in fantasy novels in 2014, I even read a couple of psychological thrillers. I discovered that not only did I survive the experience but I also enjoyed it. I’m not saying I’m going to be picking up a book with elves in it anytime soon but I’ve learned not to pigeonhole genres quite as much as I did. There is a lot more to fantasy fiction than elves and dragons and I have also learned that crime fiction is much more varied than I imagined. Not that I know much about what I’m talking about, I’m a newbie in these worlds. I’m not going overboard, though. I want to focus as always on science fiction and historical fiction, with a few thrillers thrown into the mix.
Secondly, I’ll continue to read older books. I enjoy new books enormously but I’m always trying to catch up with the backlists of favourite authors and new writers that I discover. I didn’t manage to review every book I read in 2014 but I will continue trying to review everything, whether it’s a review copy or a bought book. My reading is probably divided half and half between the two and I like that.
Thirdly, I’m going to enforce my 100 page rule. If a book hasn’t grabbed me by page 101 then it’s going to get discarded. I pick up every book with the intention and desire of finishing it, I hate giving up, but some books just aren’t made for me and I don’t want to spend too long finding that out. I’m going to be tough! Hopefully…
Fourthly, I’m considering making some minor changes to the blog as it’s now coming up to four years old. My emphasis is and always will be on reviews but I would like to chat more with you about books, so I’m envisioning some kind of monthly review and preview post, but I’m still thinking this through.
Book Review of 2014 – The Oldies
So before I get on with 2015 reviews – and I already have a big backlog because I don’t like to review books until the year they’re published (which is awkward as most of them are published today) – here’s my final Book Review of 2014. This time I want to highlight some of the fantastic older books I’ve read over the last twelve months as well as the authors I’ve binged on. I’ll also include here a couple of trilogies which were completed in 2014 but which I read in their entirety one after another during the last twelve months.
Peter F. Hamilton – The Night’s Dawn Trilogy
In the early months of 2014 I read and adored Peter F. Hamilton’s masterpiece, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. Well over 3000 pages in total, this series isn’t just mindboggling, rich and extraordinary in every single way, it’s also large enough to form a piece of furniture. I live in a tiny flat and actually got rid of a lamp table so that I could keep these three books. Brilliant to read and also functional. Without doubt, this is my favourite trilogy and my reading highlight of 2014. The reviews are here: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God. I also got to meet Peter F. Hamilton in 2014! Amazingly, I wasn’t reduced to a blubbering wreck. I even managed to ask him a relatively coherent question.
After reading The Abominable in 2013, I realised that I needed to read much more Dan Simmons. As a writer, he intrigues me. He has produced enormously atmospheric and chilly books about the world’s most inhospitable environments and he has also written powerful and imaginative – and still chilly – science fiction. In 2014, I dabbled with both. Firstly, I read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t manage to review these. I think I felt a little not up to the challenge. But these stories of spacefaring pilgrims and the absolutely terrifying shrike that each must encounter were mesmerising. Each of the tales in Hyperion were memorable and shocking, packed with twists and ideas that took my breath away. The story of Rachel Weintraub is not one I’ll ever forget. Later in the year I read The Terror, another classic novel, bringing to life the awful and harrowing Franklin Expedition into the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century. A substantial book, it is as moving and exciting as it is long. It is also more than a little frightening as the men seek to keep ahead of whatever it is that stalks them on the ice. The review is here.
Since reading Blue Remembered Earth and its sequel On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds has become one of my very favourite authors. In 2013, I read and loved Pushing Ice, one of my top science fiction books, and in 2014 I returned to the Revelation Space trilogy, finishing it with Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. As it happened, Absolution Gap turned into one of my top reads of 2014. Full of enormous ideas, gorgeous views over strange worlds and fascinating characters, it was an immensely rewarding read, quite often tragic and even humorous in unusual ways. I also read House of Suns in 2014. I have yet to review this but it was an outstanding SF read, containing one scene in particular (and if you’ve read it I think you’ll know which one) which I can never forget. I have more Reynolds’ novels in the TBR pile and in 2015, I look forward to reading more by this wonderful author whose imagination is irresistible.
The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters
I discovered this series in the GoodReads top reads of 2014 poll. I couldn’t believe that I’d missed it – an apocalyptic trilogy that is extraordinarily rich in character, featuring the deeply sympathetic figure of police detective Hank Palace. Hank isn’t your typical hero – he is obsessive, quirky, pernickity but he is immensely likeable, loyal and determined. With the world collapsing around him in the face of an increasingly imminent asteroid strike Hank cannot let justice die. He is indeed The Last Policeman. The three novels become more and more intense as things shift towards the end. The books are packed with action and emotion, hopes and fears. It all felt frighteningly real and I was so desperate to learn what would happen to Hank and his friends and family that I read all three books one after another. A huge reading highlight of 2014. The reviews are here: The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble.
The Skyscraper Throne trilogy by Tom Pollock
Another trilogy that I read back to back in 2014 was the urban fantasy Skyscraper Throne set of books by Tom Pollock. This was probably my first foray into urban fantasy and I discovered that I really enjoyed the mix of the recognisably real and the fantastic that is concealed beneath, whether it’s in an underground tunnel, in a streetlight, in a statue, or in the reflections of a mirror. Tom Pollock made me look at London, a city I lived in for years, in a completely different way and I loved what I found. It’s frightening, it really is, but it is also beautiful and rich. I was captivated instantly by The City’s Son, the novel that introduces us to graffiti artist Beth. Aboard a train that is no train at all, Beth inadvertently saves the life of Filius Viae, the prince of London, son of its mother goddess, a boy with cement-coloured skin who can call any part of the city home. Both Fil and Beth are, to all intents and purposes, parentless and each finds him or herself drawn to the other. It’s just as well – Reach, an ancient enemy who lives in the cranes that surround St Paul’s, is awake for the first time in centuries. And then that fabulous story is rivaled, if not even surpassed, by the story of Pen in The Glass Republic. The trilogy concluded during 2014 with the tumultuous and completely satisfying Our Lady of the Streets. This trilogy was one which I would never have thought before that I would enjoy but how wrong I was. Tom Pollock is one of those authors who’s given me a welcome nudge to look outside the expected for my reads.
The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
Another book destined to expand my reading was one of the very first novels I read in 2014 and it stood out throughout the rest of the year – The Golem and the Djinni. It is 1899 and immigration to New York City is at its height. Not all newcomers, though, are as they seem. Chava is a golem. A creature made from clay, life breathed in to her through spells, binding her to the man who wakes her. But upon being woken aboard the ship sailing from the old world her husband dies, leaving her as alone as one ever could be in a foreign world. On docking, she jumps into the sea and walks to the city underneath the water, dragging seaweed wrapped round her boots. She finds refuge of a sort with a kindly, elderly rabbi and she becomes part of the New York Jewish community, endlessly working, baking and sewing, never needing to sleep or eat, quietly searching for a purpose. Across the city, Ahmad awakes. He is a creature of fire, a djinni born in the Syrian desert hundreds and hundreds of years before, able to take many forms, but trapped in a brass flask by a wizard of immense evil powers. Ahmad is freed from the flask by a metalworker but an iron band around his wrist enslaves him in human form. He works for the metalworker, heating the metal with his bare hands, becoming a part of the Christian community of New York. Ahmad also never sleeps, instead he explores by night this magical city, protecting himself with an umbrella from the rain that would quench his spirit. The Golem and the Djinni is a remarkable novel, haunting and mesmerising with the most beautiful prose and alive with perfectly drawn characters, including the character of New York City itself. What a place it would have seemed to the immigrants of the earliest 20th century, and its strangeness and wonder is intensified as we witness it through the eyes and experiences of two beings from another world entirely.
The Lion and the Lamb by John Henry Clay
The Lion and the Lamb is one of my favourite historical fiction reads of 2014 and I was very annoyed that I left it so long. I think the main reason for the delay is that it’s set in late Roman Britain, a time which didn’t particularly interest me. I was so wrong. After reading this novel, this period of transformation has now become one of my favourites. This is a fabulous book, not least because it features strong female characters alongside the men and takes a fascinating look at the development of the early Christian church in Britain and its relationship to the other religions beloved by the Romans. I also loved how it brought familiar Roman sites in Britain, such as Chedworth, to life. The novel tours the country, from Hadrian’s Wall and beyond to the south and this adds so much to its depiction of this time and place.
Gaius Cironius Agnus Paulus is a prince of the Dobunni, son of a senator of Rome, a man truly privileged in these declining decades of Roman rule in Britain. But in AD 362 Paul is trapped in a stream, naked with a sword at his throat, ready to accept his fate as punishment for what he has become – a banished son and brother, a sinner, whose life is forfeit. But when Paul is saved by a peasant, Victor, the two are given a fresh start, discovering new lives in the most desperate and unlikely of circumstances. They are pressganged into the Roman army and are sent north to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. The depleted and ill-provisioned forces are expecting trouble and they get it. The Picts and the other northern tribes are joining together, ready to take on Rome. The threat, though, doesn’t come from the north alone. The longer Paul fights on the edge of empire, the more he learns about the other dangers facing Roman Britain. There comes a point when Paul must weigh up the fear of returning home to the southern hills against his need to save his family. This alone would make The Lion and the Lamb a potentially gripping novel but there is so much more to it than that.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Last but not least, I wanted to include Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a novel that managed to both infuriate and captivate me. Written at a time when it was easier to foresee time travel than mobile phones, it combines the most memerising account of a young woman’s journey back to plague-stricken Oxfordshire in the mid 14th century with the frustrating account of the struggle of those she left behind in a near-future Oxford to bring her back. But those frustrations count as nothing once you reach the incredible and spellbinding final third of the novel. What Kivrin, the woman from the future, experiences is almost beyond imagining. The dialogue and prose is wonderful and real. The people Kivrin meets have such power and authenticity. The priest Roche is an outstanding character and the way we learn about him through Kivrin’s experiences is crafted beautifully. The young child Agnes is a delight. I can’t think of another child in a modern novel I’ve loved as much. She’s so real. And over time Kivrin herself is transformed in the most remarkable way. As she says at one point, despite it all she never would have wished not to have come. An extraordinary read that wiped me out emotionally for quite some time. I love books that can do that.
So there we have it – the final Book Review of 2014 post, which means that now I can look ahead to some of the wonderful books 2015 holds in store, many of which I don’t yet know about – exciting! There are lots of books published today, 1 January, that I can recommend but haven’t reviewed yet. These include Empire (The Chronicles of the Invaders 2) by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard, another late Roman Britain novel War at the Edge of the World by Ian Ross and the follow up to Red Rising, Golden Son by Pierce Brown. If Golden Son doesn’t feature as one of my ten best reads of 2015, I’ll be very surprised. 2015 is starting very well on the bookreading front – long may it continue! Happy New Year!