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At first glance it might appear that I’ve once again failed to reach an appropriate-sounding number, however, in two of these entries I’ve actually rolled in four books together, therefore technically making it my top 11 books of the year. You’re welcome.


5. The Ministry for the Future

I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive. Inside I am hot beyond all telling, and yet my outside is even hotter. At my touch you burn, though I spin outside the sky. As I breathe my big slow breaths, you freeze and burn, freeze and burn. Someday I will eat you. For now, I feed you. Beware my regard. Never look at me.

A thoughtful and wide-ranging consideration of a possible future; a step away from nihilistic cli-fi dystopia towards an attempt to grapple with how we might work our way to a positive outcome to the crisis bearing down on us all. It would rank higher if it weren’t for the fact that Robinson is very much a science fiction author who very much does not understand human nature or behaviour, and there are multiple chapters here where his reach exceeds his grasp – notably the one about the federal government rep who successfully convinces American red-staters to abandon their towns to re-wilding, which reminded me of the bit in 2312 about how the space elevators all play Philip Glass symphonies. It’s nonetheless an excellent and timely novel, not least for its unforgettably harrowing opening sequence depicting an unprecedented heatwave killing nearly every last soul in a city in India.


4. The Pier Falls

On the eastern side of the pier a farmer from Bicester is trying to prise the six-year-old boy from between his parents. The boy can surely see that they are dead. Half his father’s head is missing. Or perhaps he can’t see this. He won’t let go of them and his grip is so tight that the man is afraid he will break the boy’s arm if he pulls any harder. He asks the boy what his name is but the boy won’t answer. The boy is in some private hell which he will never entirely leave.

“If you are writing a short story,” Mark Haddon said on the press junket for this collection, “and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.” The stories in The Pier Falls are almost all remarkable, in the literal sense: they’re actually stories about unusual events, the kind of things you’d talk to an acquaintance about if they happened to you in real life, rather than the plotless and stylised renditions of what it feels like when someone has a wistful recollection about their failed marriage or whatever. From the tragic collapse of an English pier to the fate of astronauts stranded on Mars to an absolutely brilliant magical realist modern-day retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, almost every story in this collection is an unforgettable gem.


3. Down to a Sunless Sea

“As of now, you may act independently to take whatever action you may consider necessary to achieve the survival of crew and passengers. Preservation of the aircraft is totally irrelevant.”

A Boeing 747 carrying around 500 passengers on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London is a few hours out of JFK when a nuclear war suddenly breaks out. With armageddon erupting behind them and ahead of them, the pilot and his crew scramble to find somewhere – anywhere – safe enough to land their precious cargo of human lives. An edge-of-your-seat apocalyptic techno-thriller which, ironically enough, would be a great book to read on a plane.


2. Aubrey and Maturin’s circumnavigation

“Killick, there. Clear the decks and bring another decanter of port.”
“Which it is getting wery low, sir,” said Killick. “At this rate we shall have to rouse up your feast day eighty-nine, or be satisfied with grog.”
“Rouse it up, Killick: let us live whilst we are alive.”

Books from the Aubrey-Maturin series unfailingly end up on this list. These four in particular comprise a mini-arc which sees the characters depart England and, via Malaysia and Australia and Peru, ultimately circumnavigate the globe. This is approaching the end of the series entirely, very much at the point where you might call the books historical romance or romantic adventure rather than the purer historical fiction of the early novels, but they’re still an unalloyed delight at all times. They make the reader want to live a more involved and adventurous life; to truly appreciate the beauty in the natural world all around us; to take an Epicurean joy in pleasures as small as a glass of port or as large as imminent fatherhood; to live, as Jack says, whilst we are alive. I will be forlorn when I finish the series, having first begun it with Master and Commander in 2014; but I strongly suspect I’ll just start re-reading them all over again.


1. The Revelation Space universe

It was a time of horror.
It is not yet over.

I’m including in this the short story collection Beyond the Aquila Rift, the standalone novel Chasm City, and the sequels to Revelation Space – which I first read in 2014 – Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. They all exist in the same fictional universe and are all really part of one larger work: Reynolds’ imagined future history, mostly occurring between 2200 and 2727, in which humanity has begun colonising nearby stars and has inadvertently become the latest species to provoke a very ancient galactic mechanism designed to exterminate intelligent life.

Reynolds’ work has many flaws, but what I really admire about it is how atmospheric it is: a combination of the aesthetics of Gothic horror with the genuinely frightening notion of how big, cold and apparently empty the galaxy is. It’s not a gee-whiz Star Wars future with dozens of alien races hanging out in a bar, where blasting off in a spaceship is as easy as swinging a leg over a motorcycle; it’s a bleak world of Orwellian governments, horrific nanotech plagues, bizarre religious cults, rarely-encountered alien races which are either extinct or unfathomable, and in which near-light-speed travel between the stars remains a time-consuming matter of relativistic decades.

I distinctly remember the first time I watched the film Alien, and the combined sense of awe and dread as the search party approaches and then enters H.R. Giger’s derelict alien spacecraft. More than anything else I’ve ever seen or read, Alastair Reynolds grasps the frisson of that kind of moment. All the best horror writers know that what’s most frightening is what’s unknown, and there’s nothing more unknown than what might be lurking in interstellar space. Whether it’s Sky Hausmann approaching the silent vessel shadowing his colonisation fleet, the kilometres-long starship Nostalgia for Infinity twisted into a bizarre cathedral-like shape by an alien virus, the mind-boggling scale of the Inhibitors deconstructing entire planets to fashion into vast weapons, or an alien explaining that its race’s naive excitement at finally encountering another intelligent culture was dashed by the fact that they “didn’t want to… tolerate us,” Reynolds has crafted a strange and frightening future which is a fascinating place to visit but absolutely the last place you’d ever want to live.

I read 66 books this year, second only to 2014’s high water mark of 70, when I was willfully unemployed for the first six months and had a two-hours-per-day London tube commute in the second half. I might have assumed that as a Melburnian undergoing one of the world’s longest lockdowns – personally greatly extended, as I have a vulnerable partner, into a period of self-isolation that lasted from about March to November – to have increased my reading even more than that. But I suppose I don’t actually do a lot of reading at home; I do it on the tram, or on my lunch break out of the office, or on the beach. At home I generally only read before bed, and the unique stresses of 2020 meant I also upped my evening drinking and wasn’t typically in the mood for half an hour of literature before sleep.

So 66 will have to do, and it’s a shame that from that I could only winnow eight books I thought worth writing about. Maybe next year we’ll get back to the magic number of 10. And on a similar note, looking ahead to 2021, even though I don’t much review books anymore I may shift Grub Street to another site – if the formatting of this post looks completely haywire to you it’s because WordPress has become increasingly unusable in recent years, particularly with the forced rollout of its “block” editor, and even though I’ve been blogging here for 13 years I’m ready to walk away from it with the same attitude of somebody leaving a toxic marriage. (Minor insult: I note in the preview window that even though the platform no longer has any way to introduce a simple line break, in either the HTML or visual editor, they will absolutely change “WordPress” with a lower-case P into ~*~WordPress~*~. Get your fucking priorities in order.)

8. Kindred

“I’d rather see the others.”
“What others?”
“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”
“If any do.”
“They do.”
“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”

Suddenly and inexplicably, a successful writer in the 1970s is teleported back in time to an antebellum slave plantation in Virginia. What would be an exciting time travel adventure in the hands of Octavia E. Butler’s contemporaries is transformed by the fact that, like her author, Butler’s protagonist is a black woman. It’s not a particularly radical notion today to re-examine history through the eyes of the oppressed, but I imagine it was fairly fresh ground in the 1970s science fiction scene, and Kindred held a place in the American school curriculum for decades for good reason. It’s a compelling, easily readable novel with a raft of well-sketched characters – particularly Rufus, the plantation’s heir, whose half-hearted gestures of occasional compassion are nowhere near enough to overcome the selfishness bred into him by power and privilege.

7. Blind Lake

Out in the darkness the fire had already been reduced to smouldering embers in the wet snow. A couple of people had died here, and they had died, it seemed to Chris, in order to communicate a message to Blind Lake in the bluntest possible way. You may not pass. Your community has become a cage.

At a federal research facility near Blind Lake, Minnesota, scientists use highly advanced computer technology to study intelligent life on another planet: observing the daily movements of a creature they dub “the Subject,” a chitinous alien who leads a repetitive life in a vast city. On the same day that Blind Lake undergoes a sudden lockdown and quarantine of both people and data, sealing several thousand scientists and their families inside the campus with no explanation forthcoming, the Subject departs his city and ventures into the wilderness. These dual mysteries, and the question of whether they might be related – or the assumption that they must – are the driving heart of a sci-fi mystery thriller that kept me engrossed all the way to the end.

6. The Reverse of the Medal

With one movement hundreds of broad-brimmed tarpaulin-covered hats flew off and the cheering began, the fierce full-throated cheering he had so often heard in battle.

Patrick O’Brian’s phenomenal (and phenomenally long) historical fiction series about Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the physician/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin was already one I’d started to ration. Last year I read only three of them almost back-to-back while travelling in Europe, and this year I read just two. I’ve decided they’re the kinds of books one ideally reads on holiday: not because they’re what you might think of as an easy “beach read,” but because you want to read them near the ocean, feeling the sun and smelling the brine, in a location outside of your ordinary routine, with the thought of what it might be like to experience a new land not as a white-collar drone on a one-week vacation but rather a young midshipman at the beginning of his career on the adventure of a lifetime. And reading them in my one-bedroom apartment through the long, gruelling and mostly wintry Melbourne lockdown just didn’t feel right.

I have little to say about the two that I did read other than that they serve as a continuation of a long story which is one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Neither are among the greatest entries in the series, though The Reverse of the Medal does culminate in what is very possibly the series’ greatest individual scene.

5. The ’40s, The ‘50s, and The ‘60s

When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.

Three books, and this is cheating a little because I finished The ‘40s in 2019, but these three collections from the New Yorker were fantastic slow-consumption reads that I worked my way through over the course of about 12 or 16 months. Selected and edited by the current staff to showcase some of the best writing the magazine produced in the decades each volume represents, they contain pieces as varied as long-form journalism about the D-Day landings or a Southern lynching or the now-quaint youth gangs of 1950s Brooklyn, profiles of figures ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Albert Einstein to Marlon Brando, reviews of contemporary films, books and architecture, short fiction, poetry and more. It was a wonderful way to grasp the feeling of those thirty years (representing a classic age in New York City’s history) as well as seeing how those decades were different from how pop culture has trained us to think of them. An excellent concept executed brilliantly, and it’s a real shame the New Yorker apparently decided to stop with these volumes rather than carry on with the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and – why not? – the ’00s and ’10s. We are, after all, adrift on the currents of history – currents which have become alamringly white and churning – and what’s written right now may very well come to be seen as an artefact of the past before too long.

4. Dark Matter

“Are you happy with your life?”

This is the kind of book you want to go into blind, which makes it virtually impossible to talk about. Suffice to say that on a typical evening in Chicago our humble family man protagonist is abducted off the street by a mysterious masked figure and launched into one of the most page-turning, pot-boiling, compulsively readable sci-fi airport thrillers I’ve ever read. I was enjoying it well enough already when a seeming moment of triumph instead threw the main character into even deeper shit, beginning a very clever third act, as the inevitable consequences of the well-established rules of this world finally, shockingly, manifested themselves. Maybe sharper-minded readers might spot that twist ahead of time, but I didn’t, and found it to be a hugely compelling ending to an already excellent thriller.

3. Crisis Zone

“This is really fucked up and excessively gratuitous. But also weirdly beautiful.”

This is being released in book form in 2021, but I’ve already read it, because almost every day this year – from when the coronavirus exploded in March all the way to the end of December – Simon Hanselmann published about ten panels per day on his Instagram of Crisis Zone, an off-the-cuff Meg, Mogg and Owl serial story in which they cope with the pandemic lockdowns, the BLM protests and Seattle anarchists’ autonomous zone, the West Coast wildfires, unexpected Netflix stardom, their own insanely spiralling hijinks and, ultimately, a family unit which eventually arrives at something like functioning dysfunction. I’ve long been a fan of Hanselmann’s work, with some of his volumes taking out the number one place on this list in years past, but Crisis Zone not only continued to combine Hanselmann’s winning mixture of gross-out comedy with a carefully restrained tendency towards occasional gravitas – Owl gets at least one moment of fist-punching heroism in this – but delivered it in a truly perfect medium for 2020. In a year when so many of us spent countless hours doomscrolling increasingly bleak news on our phones while lying in bed or sitting on the couch, it was always a pleasure to open Instagram and read another entry in an ongoing serial of chaos and catastrophe that seamlessly blended real world events into Hanselmann’s unique universe of quotidian sharehouse squalor (both physical and moral). God bless this house of degenerates as we blast into an uncertain 2021.

2. Piranesi

“You haven’t seen anyone else in the labyrinth, have you?”

Fourteen years after the incomparable Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke gifts us the very different but equally brilliant Piranesi. In a vast and beautiful labyrinth of rooms filled with ornate staircases and marvellous statues, lower floors claimed by the ocean and higher floors lost in the clouds, the titular Piranesi makes a pitiful living eating seaweed and drinking rainwater – yet he is happy, entirely at peace with himself, extolling to the reader the self-evident glories of the House and the World (to him, they are the same). It’s soon apparent to the reader that Piranesi is an amnesiac who does not understand how he came to be in this strange place or the cruelties which were inflicted upon him, and the gradual revelation that comes to him and to us throughout the book is one of the best uses of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. Piranesi is another fantasy masterpiece by Susannah Clarke, and it’s society’s loss that her chronic illness prevents her from being more prolific.

1. The Stand
the stand 2 (3)
By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.

In the year 2020, could it be anything else? I re-read Stephen King’s magnum opus for the first time in years because of the pandemic, of course, but it’s taking out the top place because I was surprised by how genuinely good it still is. The Stand is a gripping odyssey from the very first moment, as a soldier wakes his wife and baby in the middle of the night to flee a top secret base where the US government brews up biological weapons. Neither that soldier nor his family will survive very long, but their actions spread repercussions across the whole world, and The Stand takes us inside the heads of very ordinary people and their ordinary problems right before they all just have one big problem, together.

I ordered a copy of this just as the pandemic became truly global – and, obviously, because of the pandemic – in March, when there was a palpable sensation of the ticking clock, of day-by-day changes, of the sense that every individual human being on the planet was about to be impacted by something in a way that hadn’t happened since World War II, and (in Australia, at any rate) an urgent sense that things had to be done soon to protect us. The Stand’s first act deeply embodies that feeling, with King never losing sight of how bizarre it is that one summer morning you can be leaving a one-night-stand’s apartment in beautiful sunshine in a normal life, and two weeks later you’re in the same city but in a very, very different world; it’s a book which is very fundamentally about how the rock beneath your feet can be suddenly yanked away. Perhaps this is true of all post-apocalyptic novels, but The Stand excels at it. From Frannie burying her father to Nick watching the streetlights go out in a rural town to Larry wandering through a desolate Manhattan, the first act of The Stand is a masterpiece in illustrating the wrenching shock that comes to individuals at the end of the world.

The Stand certainly has its flaws – chief among them a wheel-spinning middle act and the story really being two very different kinds of stories – but it’s still a big, bold, weird, imaginative brick of a novel (1439 pages in the uncut edition) that’s a 10/10 tour de force and indisputably the best book I read all year. It’s the quintessential Stephen King book, a classic of mid-20th century popular fiction, and one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

My full, long review

After years adrift, somehow I’ve finally returned to normality and read enough good books this year to reach the magic number. I suspect this is less because of the number of books I read and more because the older I get, the more inclined I am to read books I think I will enjoy rather than the obligatory works of canonical literature that one simply Must Read, but Typically Hates. Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2019.

10. The Day After World War III
The Day After World War III.png
“Is it better,” asked Giuffrida, “to have a realistic, long-term plan to address this kind of emergency, and then use every effort we have to preclude ever having to implement it – or to have no plan at all? I agree that the ideal alternative would be to immediately abolish nuclear weapons. Failing to do that, it seems to me that this is a morally prudent action to take.”

A fascinating book from the 1980s which alternates between telling the history of the development of nuclear weapons and an analysis of all the plans and preparations the US had in place (and presumably still has in place) to attack Russia and defend its own populace and infrastructure. Edward Zuckerman maintains a journalist’s detached perspective throughout, never judging, allowing the insanity of the situation we led ourselves into to speak for itself. It might seem like a relic of a bygone era, but in certain key ways it remains very timely, as North Korea and Russia develop greater missile capabilities, India and Pakistan spar over Kashmir, and a totalitarian China looks set to dominate the century. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only times in history when nuclear weapons were ever used against people – but as this decade has made increasingly clear, history is never over.

9. Children of Time
Children of Time.jpg
“There is nothing about what we do that is natural. If we prized the natural we would still be hunting Spitters in the wilderness, or falling prey to the jaws of ants, instead of mastering our world. We have made a virtue of the unnatural.”

A team of human scientists, at the outskirts of settled space, have terraformed a planet and seeded it with the myriad species of Earth. The final step is to introduce a bioengineered virus designed to kickstart and accelerate the evolutionary process in the planet’s newly introduced primates – but just as it’s released, a galaxy-wide cataclysm destroys human civilisation. Millenia later, a refugee ship fleeing the dying Earth stumbles across this terraformed Eden only to find that the viral process went awry and an entirely different species of animal has developed intelligence and built a civilisation. Tchaikovsky’s characters are flat and his writing merely workmanlike, but Children of Time is a fascinating science fiction concept executed brilliantly. A 600+ page novel that I happily polished off in a few days deserves a place on this list.

8. Terminal World
terminal world 2.png
Up past the pastel flicker of Neon Heights, up past the hologram shimmer of Circuit City. Up past the pink plasma aura of the cybertowns. He could just see them circling around up there, leagues overhead, wheeling and gyring around Spearpoint’s tapering needle like flies around an insect zapper.

And he thought to himself: How the fuck did one of them get down here? And why did it have to happen on my watch?

Reynolds is mostly renowned for his hard science fiction, but Terminal World is more of a noirish sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, with overtones of the film Dark City. It begins in a city called Spearpoint, built on the flanks of an impossibly tall and needle-like mountain, divided into invisible “zones” which somehow prevent different levels of technology from working. The story begins as an “angel,” one of the cybernetically-enhanced humans from the highest echelons of Spearpoint, falls to its apparent death in the 1950s-era streets of Circuit City. It’s actually not quite dead and is carrying a message for the enigmatic Dr Quillion, who soon finds himself on the run, pursued down through Spearpoint’s zones – Neon Heights, Steam Town, Horse Town – and then finally out onto the vast plains of… well, of whatever world it is where this takes place. (It’s never outright stated, but there are enough clues that I guessed about halfway through.) Quillon’s world doesn’t make much sense if you think about it for too long, which is perhaps why so many of Reynolds’ fans found it disagreeable, but I thought it was a thoroughly creative and entertaining steampunk romp.

7. A Farewell to Arms
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“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”

After reading The Sun Also Rises earlier this year and finding it mostly tedious and self-indulgent, it was a pleasure to read a Hemingway novel that actually has a plot. American Frederick Henry serves on the Italian front in World War I, sees his comrades die, falls in love with a nurse while hospitalised, witnesses the terrible defeat at Caporetto, falls victim to the bickering in-fighting which manifests as summary military executions and the first hints of Fascism, and manages to flee with his lover to neutral Switzerland in the dead of night. Like most people, I enjoy Hemingway well enough for writing about precisely the sort of thing he spent his life mythologising and which he’s still renowned for – the drinking, the fighting, the general living of life to its fullest in a vanished early 20th century Europe – and A Farewell To Arms delivers that in spades. But this is also the first of his novels which, in its ending, I found genuinely moving.

6. The Talisman
On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic.

You can tell from the atmospheric opening paragraphs of this 700+ page brick of a novel that it’s going to be the kind of great, pulpy, engrossing adventure that Stephen King can write so well. (It’s actually co-authored with Peter Straub, though I wouldn’t have guessed it from the text alone, which feels very classic King.) The Talisman opens in a bleak, deserted New Hampshire seaside resort at the ass-end of the tourist season, where 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s terminally ill mother has dragged him to live out her final days amid the ghosts of memories of better times. Jack witnesses uncannily intelligent seagulls, sees a bizarre whirlpool open in the grotty beach sand, befriends the janitor at the dilapidated local amusement park – and soon finds himself embarking on a grand cross-country voyage to California, travelling through both the United States and its strange parallel universe counterpart called The Territories, on a fantasy quest to find the Talisman to save his mother’s life. I read this in the form of a 35-year-old foxed and yellowed paperback that I picked up at a second-hand bookstore, which I think is just right for a book like this: a forgotten epic from King’s back catalogue, from his powerhouse decade of the 1980s, which perfectly captures a nostalgic sort of Americana and ranks alongside the early books of the Dark Tower series in proving that he can write urban fantasy just as well as horror.

5. Troubles
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“You don’t know what living in Ireland is like.”
“Oh, yes I do. You forget that I’ve been living here for some time now.”

At the outset of the Irish War of Independence in 1919, Major Brendan Archer comes to stay at the crumbling Majestic Hotel, owned by his fiancee’s upper-class British family in County Wexford. This may not sound like the foundation of a particularly enjoyable novel, but Troubles is underpinned by a mordant satire which manifests itself, subtly or otherwise, on nearly every page. The Majestic itself, a Gormenghast-like relic which is literally falling apart, is both a metaphor for the decaying British Empire and one of literature’s great fictional locales, painted so well it feels like a real place – one which I was eventually sorry to leave. A brilliant cast of eccentric characters bemuse the straight-man Major at every turn; most memorably Edward Spencer, the stiff-upper-lip Tory toff who is gradually driven round the bend by the infuriating successes of Sinn Fein and Ireland’s inevitable journey towards independence. As a comedy of manners, Troubles is a wonderful book, and as a skewering of the imperial fantasies of the British ruling class, it’s more relevant than ever going into 2020, as the old white men of England prepare to tear their country away from Europe in pursuit of a faded dream.

4. Pet Sematary
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He saw Jud across the road, bundled up in his big green duffel coat, his face lost in the shadow cast by the fur-fringed hood. Standing on his frozen lawn, he looked like a piece of statuary, just another dead thing in this twilit landscape where no bird sang.

Even if you’ve never read Pet Sematary you can probably hazard a guess at what it’s about, since Stephen King’s classic works have seeped into so many other parts of pop culture. Big city doctor Louis Creed moves into a rural house in Maine next to a busy highway, with a creepy, misspelled “pet sematary” in the nearby woods – and a wise neighbour who helps Louis with some old local knowledge about the power of that place after his daughter’s cat is killed. Things go horribly wrong, of course, but what impressed me was how much King takes his time: how he slowly builds up an atmosphere of dread, marinating the novel in anxiety about death and mortality long before anything supernatural occurs. Pet Sematary is a masterpiece of horror and one of King’s finest novels.

3. The Last Policeman trilogy
After this one I have sixteen bags with ten servings per bag. Houdini eats approximately two servings a day, so we should be just about okay for the seventy-seven days remaining. But who’s counting? I stand up and stretch and fill his water bowl. That’s one of the big jokes: Who’s counting?

The answer, of course, is everyone. Everyone is counting.

We’re all going to die one day. For most of us that day is far away in the future, but even for those of us unlucky enough to receive, say, a terminal cancer diagnosis, the grief is tempered by the fact that life goes on for others. It’s a different story if the entire human species gets its collective terminal diagnosis all at once.

Ben H. Winters’ marvellous trilogy – The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble – explores just what might happen if humanity learned that an asteroid was going to impact the earth and there was nothing we could do about it. Using mystery fiction as a template, we follow Detective Hank Palace as he solves cases in an increasingly deteriorating United States, with everything coloured by the looming disaster marked on the calendar. Reactions to it are as varied as people are – violence and charity, hedonism and despair, insanity or clear-eyed acceptance – and Winters portrays a steady tick of increasing tension with each passing day, week and month. The perspective never zooms out, never swerves from the viewpoint of our plucky, straight-edge young police officer; but we garner enough from what he sees to witness the broad strokes of a species in its final days. Particularly interesting, given that he’s a cop, are the hints we see of how the state itself adapts: from a police department that begins cutting down on non-essential work, to one which becomes a semi-authoritarian reactionary force, to the final days in which organised government is reduced to an inane repeated message on the emergency broadcast system in an otherwise anarchic America. It’s compelling, fascinating, and page-turning stuff – and by the conclusion of the series, quite touching.

2. Eifelheim
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Whatever had been approaching had arrived.

What if our first contact with an alien species already happened, and the rest of the world never realised it? Michael Flynn originally explored the idea in a 1980s novella, about a historian piecing together primary sources which seem to indicate that a German village was visited at the time of the Black Death by a species of frightening insectile creatures – and that it subsequently vanished from the map. Eifelheim is the expansion of that story into a full-length novel, now almost entirely set at the time of the contact, as 14th century villagers discover a group of stranded interdimensional aliens in their local woods. Knowing that the encounter ultimately ends in the village of Eifelheim never being mentioned in the historical archive again, the reader naturally assumes this contact will end in violence and destruction. But what begins as an uneasy stand-off eventually becomes a cross-cultural bonding of friendship, brotherhood, trust and respect. Eifelheim is not just an excellent first contact novel mixed with a meticulously researched and realised piece of historical fiction: it’s also a deeply poignant and moving tribute to the Christian virtues of charity, hospitality and kindness, and an affecting read for believers and non-believers alike.

1. More Aubrey-Maturin
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Night after night they played there in the great cabin with the stern-windows open and the ship’s wake flowing away and away in the darkness. Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike in nationality, education, religion, appearance and habit of mind as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and cello.

The specific books in question are The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World, which I read on a flight to Europe, while I was in Italy, and on a flight back to Australia respectively. But the specific novels don’t really matter; they merely form chapters in the enormous 20-book meganovel that is Patrick O’Brian’s marvellous Aubrey-Maturin series. The iterations of this series will be either at the top or near the top of every one of these year-end lists I write in the foreseeable future – and while I’d be tempted to polish off the remaining ten books in 2020, they’re the kind of books you want to savour.

Patrick O’Brian was the kind of maddeningly talented renaissance man who worked as a spy in World War II, spoke multiple languages, wrote biographies of historical figures, made his own wine at his estate in the Pyrenees and, in his spare hours, penned the most tremendous historical fiction novels of all time. This breadth of life experience comes through in his writing. The Aubrey-Maturin series at first glance seems like Dad books for the more well-educated and refined kind of Dad; a bunch of Royal Navy stories set during the Napoleonic wars to entertain the sort of fellow who wears sweater vests and subscribes to National Geographic. But they’re so much more than historical adventure novels. Revolving around the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon, naturalist and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, they cover every topic under the sun: politics, art, history, music, poetry, exploration, depression, the natural world, drug use, brotherhood, love, loss and – among countless other things – the timeless question of how one should live. As Richard Snow wrote more than twenty-five years ago in The New York Times: “On every page Mr. O’Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”

Once again I find myself approaching the new year without the magic number: T E N. In my defence I read only 42 books compared to last year’s 45, when I did a Top 5 Books of the Year, so I have a higher ratio of books read vs good books read, which if anything must be an improvement. (I also tapped out on two – Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning and M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device – because I’m getting older and life is too short to waste reading rubbish books.) If I was to force myself into naming ten books, the three that I’d shoehorn into this list would be The Overstorey by Richard Powers, The People in The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, and The Son by Philipp Meyer – all good novels, but not great; not good enough for me to bother writing anything on them.

So, here are the seven best books I read in 2018:

7. Pushing Ice
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“It’s them. They’re here. Oh, God. They’re here.”

One day, with no prior warning, one of Saturn’s smaller moons suddenly departs from its planetary orbit and takes up a trajectory that will see it depart the solar system. Surprise! Only one human vessel, the comet miner Rockhopper with a crew of about 150, is anywhere close to being able to intercept what is obviously an alien artefact before it escapes humanity’s grasp entirely. While this plotline clearly owes a great debt to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the limits to which Reynolds pushes it – across vast arenas of time and space – are really remarkable; the story keeps going well beyond the point at which you might expect it to conclude. (A particularly good example is when the crew discover an advanced spacesuit manufactured by the human race in the future, which ends up being explained perfectly well, without recourse to time travel – at least of the non-relativistic variety). And as always, Reynolds has a brilliant ability to illustrate just how frightening and unknowable space is, and how eerie any kind of first contact would be – he’s one of the few sci-fi writers whose books successfully blend over into horror.

6. Sabrina
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There was a time not long ago when it seemed like the internet was an unquestionably good thing for humanity: unobstructed access to the sum of all human knowledge, instantaneous communication with anyone anywhere in the world, an ability for people to connect with like-minded communities they might not have the opportunity to find in real life. The past five years or so has soured that point of view, as our body politic – particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – is poisoned by conspiracy theories, toxic ideologies, and an alarming departure from the norms and standards of critical thinking and a shared reality. Cranks and lunatics have always been with us, but it’s the internet which allows them to find each other, feed off each other and egg each other on to cross the line from spewing crap on a message board to stalking the families of massacre victims or running people down in a car. Nick Drnaso’s Booker-longlisted graphic novel Sabrina is, on the surface, about the murder of an innocent woman and the shockwave it sends through her friends and family. More interestingly, it’s about the terrifying way the internet can suddenly shove an ordinary person onto a global stage.

5. The World in Winter
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It was difficult to tell, looking back, how good a summer that had been.

Another thoroughly engrossing mid-century sci-fi potboiler from John Christopher. The earth’s magnetosphere has been disrupted, winters are getting colder, and our protagonists eventually decamp an apocalyptically frozen London for lives as struggling white refugees in Lagos, Nigeria. The World in Winter is dated in its class politics, but it’s reassuring that Christopher avoids any of the outright racism one would expect of a novel of this type written in that decade; and flipping the script on xenophobia towards refugees is still as timely as ever. Anyway, never mind all that – it’s mostly just another cracking good disaster story from one of the 20th century’s most overlooked science fiction authors.

4. The 2020 Commission Report On The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States
2020 commission report
“The president just said, ‘Absolutely beautiful’,” recalled a staffer. “I started to cry.”

This kind of book scratches a very particular itch for me. Less a novel, more a book-length version of an internet longread (like what happened on Air Force One during 9/11 or what will happen when the Queen dies), Jeffrey Lewis paints a fascinating scenario of a potential North Korean nuclear strike on the US. Left-wing readers (of which I am one) might balk at the very idea as some kind of Fox News fever dream hysteria, but every step of Lewis’ scenario is built upon a ladder of brinkmanship and misunderstanding, all of it drawn from real-life scenarios like the sinking of the Cheonan or the shooting down of KAL 007. Readers less interested in geopolitical doomsday scenarios might get less out of this book than I did, but it’s nonetheless a painstakingly researched and disturbingly plausible exploration of nuclear war by a writer who knows exactly what he’s talking about. The result is the most gripping book I read all year.

 3. The Physician
“In the countries of the East the Arabs have made a fine art of the science of medicine. In Persia the Muslims have a hospital at Ispahan that is truly a healing center. It is in this hospital and in a small academy there that Avicenna makes his doctors.”

A wonderful coming of age story, beginning with the orphaning of Rob Cole in London in the 11th century and following his life as he is apprenticed to an itinerant barber-surgeon roaming all over England. Noah Gordon follows Cole’s induction into the rudimentary field of medieval medicine, his decision to disguise himself as a Jew and travel to Persia to seek out further knowledge, his friendships with other students, his mentorship under the famous physician Avicenna, and even his entrance into a Persian king’s circle of confidants and a war expedition to India. It’s undemanding historical fiction that reads like a great fantasy novel, and it’s easy to see why The Physician was a bestseller.

2. Desolation Island & The Fortune of War
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“My God, oh my God. Six hundred men.”

Seven books deep, yet some would argue this is where Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series truly hits its stride. It feels appropriate to group the two books together as one entry, given that the second picks up with the characters still stranded on the far side of the world, before shifting gears dramatically and putting them at the heart of an enemy city. Paired together, they play off each other immensely well: Desolation Island is almost entirely ocean-based, yet still manages to utilise Stephen very well, his espionage storyline kickstarted by a spy aboard the ship; The Fortune of the War sees Jack his usual clumsy landbound self and Stephen once again embroiled in intrigue, yet – when things begin to go violently wrong for Stephen – it’s Jack who has to take the lead and smuggle them to safety. This series is at its best when O’Brian manages to balance the strengths of both characters perfectly, which he hasn’t always managed to do in the past. And from the horrible battle with a pursuing Dutch man-o’-war during an Antarctic gale, to Stephen’s more personal flight from pursuers through a foggy Boston morning, these two books have some of the series’ most memorable setpieces thus far.

 1. The Killer Angels
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“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. I don’t … this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”

It’s probably not uncommon, as a man, to read war memoirs or watch war films and feel that if you didn’t serve in the military in your early twenties then you possibly missed out on some intrinsic part of the masculine experience. Just a gut feeling rather than a sensible idea, of course, since if I’d been born forty years earlier and my number had come up in the Vietnam draft my ass would have been on a plane to Europe the same day, and I certainly don’t regret not enlisting to participate in Australia’s expeditionary support of America’s 18-years-and-counting attempt to pacify the Hindu Kush. There’s a reason that for the last three or four generations, most of our great cultural depictions of brotherhood between men on the battlefield usually revolve around World War II: because it was the last purely just war we ever fought. And I’m sure that even if I’d been twenty years old in 1940, any fond memories or pride in my service would be outweighed by the sheer violent terror of it all.

Still, that gut feeling is there, and it can’t be denied, and the American Civil War would stand alongside World War II as one of the most just wars of all time. The only thing worth sending people to kill other people they’ve never met, and be killed by them in turn, is to prevent even greater atrocities, which slavery obviously was regardless of what many modern Americans think. The Killer Angels does not shy away from this, even as it strangely focuses far more on Southern generals than Union generals, and comes uncomfortably close to Robert E. Lee apologia. It’s a mark of how brilliant a writer Shaara is that I was able to overlook these political flaws: his prose verges on poetry, and like all great novels this one has many scenes which stay in the memory long after the reader has finished. The summer heat and approaching thunderstorm in a deserted Pennsylvania landscape as two great armies play cat and mouse with each other, Lee’s spy the only man in the world who knows where both of them are, “[carrying] the knowledge with a hot and lovely pride;” the first contact on the outskirts of Gettysburg, as a Union scout, a teenager perched in a tree, sees the first skirmishers approaching, “long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist;” and the brilliance of Joshua Chamberlain’s final desperate gambit as his men run out of ammunition at Little Round Top: “Fix bayonets! Charge! He leaped down from the boulder, still screaming, his voice beginning to crack and give, and all around him his men were roaring animal screams, and he saw the whole Regiment rising and pouring over the wall and beginning to bound down through the dark bushes, the dead and dying and wounded, hats coming off, hair flying, mouths making sounds, one man firing as he ran, the last bullet, the last round.” The Killer Angels is one of the most worthy Pulitzer winners I’ve read, and perhaps one of the greatest war novels of all time.

I usually do a top ten books list, but you know what? I didn’t read many good books this year, and I’m not going to be goaded into writing stuff about books I’m lukewarm about by my own semi-OCD urge to make things nice and rounded. That’s why I quit reviewing every single book I read in the first place. Nope, five is fine. Here’s the best five books I read in 2017.

5. One More Year
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“I’m having a bad time in here…”

The Meg, Mogg and Owl collections came in at #1 on this list last year, and this volume brings more hilarious antics from a group of revolting, selfish, drug-addicted anthropomorphic animals. What sets it apart from the previous collections is the shocking ending. I won’t spoil it here, but anyone who’s read the other comics will be wondering exactly how much further Hanselmann could push the envelope. So to clarify: it’s not “shocking” in a gruesome or funny way, or even a dramatic non-comedy moment like the end of Megahex, in which Owl moves out of his toxic sharehouse and breathes a sigh of relief as he watches New Year’s fireworks through his taxi window. It’s more of a startlingly unexpected moment which suddenly casts the artist as an unreliable narrator and causes you to question everything you’ve seen of these characters over the previous books. And it’s perfect in its brevity. Hanselmann doesn’t linger, doesn’t make it a big thing. He just gives us a handful of quick panels and then the book is over and we’re left to digest what we just witnessed. Meg, Mogg and Owl is one of the funniest comics of all time, but it’s this sort of stuff which pushes it into being genuinely great art, and something everybody should check out.

4. Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon
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“Fly me to the earth.”

Two books in an as-yet-incomplete trilogy, but I’m rolling them together because I read them almost back to back and they blended together in my mind. Aside from being the best prose stylist writing science fiction today, Ian McDonald is a marvellous sci-fi writer of a futurist bent, who carefully considers all aspects of times to come – the evolution not just of technology but of society, capitalism, geopolitics and human behaviour – and then tosses the reader straight into that world with no spoonfeeding.

This is also one of those books, like Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, in which the author patiently constructs a fictional world and then gleefully rips it apart. The enveloping and confusing catastrophe/coup/war which spreads across the moon in the second half is one of the most exhilarating stretches of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I try to avoid describing fiction as “cinematic,” but I can’t deny these books had some unforgettably visual setpieces and climactic moments that made them an absolute ball to read, and I’m very much looking forward to the final chapter of the trilogy.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son
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“You’re a survivor who has nothing to live for.”

This is a contemporary Pulitzer Prize winning novel about North Korea, so naturally I went into it duly expecting a modern-day rehash of 1984 – which, sure, was an important book, but also a very drab and tedious one. I was pleased to find that The Orphan Master’s Son is nothing like that. Instead it’s a vibrant and exotic novel which almost reads like science fiction or fantasy, as it takes us by the hand and leads us into a wholly alien world. It helps that the protagonist’s life, as a North Korean intelligence agent, is an adventurous one – he travels to Japan, to international waters, to the United States – but Johnson’s skill is such that every moment of this book, even the stint in a concentration camp, feels alive with colour and movement. The beads of moisture on a bottle of Taedonggang beer on a summer day; the glint of moonlight on the black volcanic sands of a disputed island chain; the boat captain’s story about his days on a Soviet cannery ship and the gnashing beak and tentacles of a giant squid that once came down the chute. Every page of this book is a vision into another world. Every sentence is a pleasure to read.

2. Northern Lights
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“But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
“Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.”

I hadn’t read this in fifteen years, but picked it up again because Philip Pullman has finally started publishing the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. There’s a reason I’m listing just Northern Lights and not the original trilogy as a whole: it goes significantly downhill, particularly in the didactic and tedious third volume, The Amber Spyglass.

Northern Lights, though, is deservedly considered one of the best YA books ever written. I can remember exactly where I was when I first started reading it: on a family holiday down to a caravan park down in rainy Albany, on Western Australia’s south coast, when I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. It’s a great book in general, but it particularly succeeds as a YA novel because it checks all those boxes in a young boy or girl’s brain: the daemons, the armoured bears, the alethiometer, the wonderful society of the canal-boat “gyptians,” the witches of the frozen north, the great bridge between worlds, and a hundred other little things. Northern Lights hums along at a terrific pace, each scene feeding perfectly into the next, a fantastic new figment of Pullman’s imagination on every chapter, every single part of it tapping perfectly into the sense of adventure I was craving as a fourteen-year-old on a rainy day. It’s a shame the rest of the trilogy stutters and comes apart, but Northern Lights is a truly wonderful book.

1. Lonesome Dove series
He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again. That person was back down the weeks, on the other side of the canyon of time. There was no rejoining him, and there never would be.

I first read Lonesome Dove in 2014, when I was riding a motorbike across America, and it ranked #5 in my books of the year. I read Dead Man’s Walk – written later, but chronologically the first in the series – in 2015, and looking back it seems that volume didn’t even rate a mention in my top 10 that year.

Which simply goes to show that some things take a while to digest. Some books you keep thinking about, keep turning over in your head, keep coming back to. And some things work better interlinked, standing in symphony with each other, than they do alone. I’ve read all four books in the series now, and I re-read Lonesome Dove again this year, and I’ll now happily argue that they’re among the greatest American novels of all time.

On the surface, the Lonesome Dove series is a Western saga revolving around the friendship between Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, from their teenage years to their retirement. They’re perfect foils to each other: Call, the gruff stoic, who sees life as something to be endured for the sake of duty, and Gus, the chatterbox epicurean, who sees life as a jug of whiskey to be savoured and enjoyed. Around this axle spins an entire universe of Western characters: cowboys and Indians, priests and whores, governors and millionaires, paupers and peasants, Americans and Mexicans, good people and bad people and every stripe in between. This makes it sound like a popcorn film on paper (in fact it was adapted into a cult TV series, and McMurtry was irritated that so many people embraced it as a “Gone with the Wind of the West”) and it’s true that these books are immensely fun, easily readable, and greatly enjoyable – a point of contention if you’re one of those types who believes proper literature is meant to be difficult and inaccessible.

But the reason they’re great literature is because, before our eyes, hidden behind this airport fiction adventure, McMurtry is dismantling the myth of the West. It was a harsh time and a harsh place, merciless to natives and settlers alike, a godforsaken country where death was a constant possibility and most people were just trying to scrape out a half-decent life. Little did those rough and tumble cow-pokes dragging livestock between Texas and Montana – just another paycheque – realise that one day their own country would comandeer their lives and their legacy, transforming them into a homegrown version of the chivalrous medieval knight of France or Britain, wandering the land, protecting the weak and the innocent. Larry McMurtry wants nothing to do with that; wants nothing to do with almost any narrative convention at all, in fact.

My interpretation of these books is that they’re deeply nihilistic. There’s no getting around that. Everybody is going to die, there is no cosmic justice, and happiness and success are largely a matter of luck. Bad things happen and they cannot be undone. Good people die and bad people live. Time rolls on, life is full of regret, you can’t turn back the clock and you’re still inching closer to your own inevitable death with your dreams unfulfilled and your regrets gnawing at you every day.

Why then do we root for Inish Scull during his terrible torture at the hands of Ahumado? Why do we want Gus to save Lorena from Blue Duck? Why do we think it matters if Call acknowledges Newt as his son? Because nihilism is not the same thing as pessimism. Because there is meaning in life: the meaning that we choose to attribute to it. I suspect most people, McMurtry included, side with Gus more than Call. The meaning of life is simply for it to be enjoyed.

I’ve decided to stop reviewing books in 2017. I don’t mean entirely; I’ll still write a review if I feel I have something relevant to say, if a book is really wonderful or really awful or if I think it does something particularly unique. But I’ve wasted too much time over the past few years on my own obsession with box-ticking, with reviewing every book I read even if I don’t have any insights worth sharing. I’ll probably still scribble a few thoughts in shortform on my Goodreads account, if you don’t already follow me there.

Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2016 – not counting re-reads, specifically my Re-reading Discworld series, which would have filled up quite a bit of it.

10. The Possessors

“Come out, Mandy. You think it’s cold out here, but it isn’t.”

Sometimes you don’t want a Booker Prize winner with fifteen pages of broadsheet accolades on the inside cover. Sometimes you don’t want gorgeous prose and beautiful metaphors and intricately structured symbolism. Sometimes you just want a classic sci-fi monster story to read late at night with a storm howling at the window. The Possessors is vintage John Christopher, a group of stuffy middle class English tourists trapped after a snowstorm in a remote Swiss chalet who have the singular misfortune of stumbling across a body-possessing alien intelligence, and find themselves falling to it one by one. Sure, we’ve seen this before in The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but what’s not to love? Books like these are the equivalent of a halal snack pack: you shouldn’t have one for dinner every night, but when it’s what you’re craving it can be pretty damn good.

Further reading: RIP John Christopher, Unsung Young Adult Sci-Fi Writer

9. Black Light Express
Far off, where the sea met the sky, a light the colour of nothing at all reflected very faintly off the clouds.

The sequel to Philip Reeve’s enormously enjoyable futuristic space opera Railhead, Black Light Express sees him in Star Trek mode as Zen and Nova explore an entirely different galaxy full of bizarre aliens and beautiful new planets. Back home in the Network Empire, trouble is brewing, and before long Zen and Nova aren’t the only humans forced to flee into uncharted space. Reeve paints his galactic canvas with gay abandon, and it’s all the little things that add up to make him a great writer: the cinematic setpieces, the concise and subtle descriptions of characters’ feelings, and his uncanny skill of ending chapters with just the right turn of phrase to generate narrative frisson. It continues to bemuse me that he’s not more well-known; he’s certainly one of Britain’s finest YA novelists.

Further reading: Philip Reeve on the genesis of his concept for an interstellar railway

8. Here
“We have reason to believe that your property may potentially be an important site.”

Not really a comic or a graphic novel so much as an intriguing thought experiment that plays out across a book-length work. There is no story, there are no characters; there is simply a room. There is simply here. The place never changes, but we see the room of an ordinary house over millions of years of existence – including long before it is built and long after it is destroyed – jumbled, out-of-order glimpses of the thousands of minor and major interactions, both human and animal, playing out across thousands of years. It makes you reassess the idea of your own living room as a humdrum, ordinary space. Here is a unique and fascinating work of art.

Further reading: McGuire’s early 6-page comic with the same concept, published in 1989

7. House of Suns

“You are a bookworm, tunnelling through the pages of history.”

Humans can’t really grasp the immensity of space and time, but Alastair Reynolds does a very good job of trying. House of Suns puts us in the minds of near-immortals travelling around a human colonised galaxy, watching empires rise and fall like lilypads blooming on a pond. This is a space opera on relativistic time: where lifetimes can pass in a single paragraph, where a spaceship chase near the climax takes three thousand years, where a character can refer to an empire that controlled thousands of star systems and lasted millions of years as “fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s a testament to his skill how rapidly the reader adjusts to this new world. Beyond that, House of Suns is a great book because it’s just deeply, deeply engrossing – the kind of book that makes you miss your stop on the train.

Further reading: An interview with Alastair Reynolds about House of Suns

6. The Peripheral
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.

The Peripheral, like many of Gibson’s works, is a familiar plot-driven genre vehicle with predictable strokes and a deus ex machina ending. He can be forgiven all that because it’s such a richly detailed world – or two worlds, rather, one in rural America in the near future and one in London in the far future, hinging on the time travel connection and transfer of data between the two. Both of these worlds are equally engaging: a run-down, decrepit, barely-getting-by America that’s seen better days, and a glitzy high-tech London built on the ruinous foundations and catastrophes of the 21st century, a world where the haves are doing great and the have-nots have pretty much died out. Gibson once again weaves his magic with the subtle inclusion of small details and an unforgiving determination to rarely hold the reader’s hand.

Further reading: Ned Beauman interviews William Gibson about The Peripheral

5. Warday
At 1654 we heard a long, crackling rumble from the north. I knew that this was the sound of the Soviet weapons detonating over Washington, two hundred miles away.
I remember that a big crowd had gathered, and the local volunteer fire department soon arrived.

We haven’t thought about them much over the past twenty-five years, but all those thousands of nuclear warheads are still there, still patiently waiting to go off. Warday explores not a full-blown nuclear war, but rather a limited strike of only a handful of warheads on US cities… which nonetheless triggers total economic collapse, a balkanisation of the United States, terrible famine and a new world order. This is what a single submarine-load of nuclear weapons could wreak, Streiber says, so now imagine what a full-scale exchange would look like. Warday is very much a product of the Cold War and in some ways it can feel quite dated; but given that a man with the ego and emotional capacity of a toddler is about to take control of America’s nuclear codes, Warday is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Further reading: What Exactly Would It Mean To Have Trump’s Finger On The Nuclear Button?

4. Replay

The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.

It’s a thought I’ve had often enough: what if I suddenly woke up in my own body ten or twenty years ago, with all my memories intact? How much would I remember about sporting events for gambling purposes? Do I try to stop 9/11? How would I cope with missing the people in my life that I wouldn’t meet for another ten years? Replay lives that fantasy (or nightmare) out as Jeff Winston finds himself, over and over again, dying of a heart attack at the age of 42 and waking up as an 18-year-old in his college dorm. It’s a hugely compelling and enjoyable paperback potboiler that feels like a lost entry from Stephen King’s early writing career.

Further reading: Jo Walton revisits Replay

3. Truth

“Didn’t do a bad job with the boys either,” he said. “Seeing to them. I should’ve said that before.”

There are awkward beats in Truth, to be sure; places where Peter Temple’s primary calling as a crime writer shines through a bit too strong, places where he feels compelled to insert a gunfight or some other cliche. But none of that is what comes to mind when I remember this book. What I remember is a novel that hangs on a genre framework, but also powerfully rises above it. Truth is an atmospheric police procedural set during a sweltering summer week in Melbourne, as the smoke of hellish bushfires hangs over the city, as Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani tries to cling to the last few shreds of his personal life. It’s an examination of Australian masculinity, a masterclass in laconic Australian vernacular, and a very deserving winner of the Miles Franklin Award.

Further reading: An interview with Peter Temple

2. HMS Surprise
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On and on she sailed, in warmer seas but void, as though they alone had survived Deucalion’s flood; as though all land had vanished from the earth; and once again the ship’s routine dislocated time and temporal reality so that this progress was an endless dream, even a circular dream, contained within an unbroken horizon and punctuated only by the sound of guns thundering daily in preparation for an enemy whose real existence it was impossible to conceive.

The third novel in the immense Aubrey-Maturin series, and the one for me where Patrick O’Brien really hits his stride. It’s an epic in miniature, a voyage across the world to Brazil, India and Malaya, the characters we’ve come to know taking their first steps beyond the familiar world of Europe. O’Brien’s prose is so complex, so 19th century in its mannerisms and stylings, that I have to admit it sometimes goes over my head; I would not actually be able to offer you a proper plot synopsis of HMS Surprise, a book which I have decided is the second-best one I read all year, which frankly seems odd. Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to matter with Patrick O’Brien. What I remember is his deeply vivid imagery, and the dozens of scenes that still stick in my head from this book: the loss of the poor, lovesick crewman on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic; the funeral pyre at the edge of the water in India; Stephen’s duel, and the surgery he performs on himself to extract a bullet from the edge of his beating heart; the sad, lonely death of the reverend on a nameless tropical island somewhere in Malaya; Stephen’s heartbroken trek up the side of a volcano in the Canaries to lie in a shadow gutter of snow. This whole series is really one enormous meta-novel, but HMS Surprise is the most strikingly beautiful part of it so far.

Further reading: Philip Reeve on why he loves the Aubrey-Maturin series

1. Megahex & Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam
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“That’s not funny. That’s just depressing.”

This is two books, but along with their outrigger zines, online home at Vice, and various scribblings floating around on Tumblr,these comics by Australian artist Simon Hanselmann are the best thing I’ve read in years. A witch, her cat, a man-sized owl and a werewolf: some of the most disgusting, depraved and depressing characters you will see put to print, floating through a pointless life of ennui in a suburban wasteland that’s not quite America and not quite Australia, setting constant new lows in their inhuman treatment of each other. With its slow, agonising build-ups, pitch perfect timing and characters’ ridiculous facial expressions, Megg, Mogg & Owl is probably the funniest comic I’ve ever read.

And that would be enough: a really hilarious and creative stoner comedy that made me literally laugh out loud multiple times would be great, and it would certainly be on this list. The reason it’s #1 is because Hanselmann consistently, subtly pushes the narrative beyond its expected template, creating moments which are unexpectedly moving. The ending of Megahex in particular, as Owl closes his eyes and imagines himself flying free amongst the fireworks, escaping his terrible life, was surprisingly cathartic. Using the words “tackling” or “addressing”makes it sound like an after-school PSA, as though things like drug use abuse and depression and loneliness are solvable hurdles on the road to a happy existence, rather than, for some people, indelible elements of their lives. Maybe the best word is “illustrates;” Hanselmann draws on his own life experience to illustrate depressing, drug-addled, abusive relationships, using anthropomorphic fantasy characters in an endlessly hilarious way.

Further reading: “Boston Clanger” (the NSFW litmus test for whether this humour is to your taste), plus Sean T. Collins interviews Simon Hanselmann

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber (2001) 66 p.

199 steps.jpg

This is quite a short book, somewhere between a novella and a long short story. My library ebook edition turned out to have a preview of The Book of Strange New Things taking up the final third, so I was a bit surprised when The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps ended quite abruptly on page 66.

Under the Skin was a brilliant debut novel and a hard act to follow, and The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps does unfortunately have a touch of sophomore syndrome to it. Haunted by repetitive nightmares, archaeology student Sian joins a dig at the old abbey in Whitby, Yorkshire. Here she meets an arrogant medical student from London named Mack, who shares with her an old parchment in a bottle his late father found in the foundations of a local building. Their relationship grows as they try to safely extract and decipher the message within, which turns out to be a confession about a centuries-old murder. So The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is part romance, part historical mystery. It reminded me, on reflection, of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. (Which, funnily enough, I reviewed exactly a year ago to the day.) Both are short books are about a memorable time in a person’s life, in a place they don’t normally live, visiting for a very specific task; the time and place unusual only in that it’s unusual for them, breaking them out of their normal routines and leaving them aware even as they live that time that it’s quite ephemeral. That was long-winded; I’m sure the Germans have a word for it.

Anyway, I found The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps engaging enough while I was reading it but not particularly memorable. It felt very much to me like an uncertain second novel after the huge success of Faber’s debut.

This time last year I was sitting in my room in Whitechapel, knowing it doesn’t snow in London very often but still stubbornly expecting it to. Now I’m back in Melbourne again, and it feels as though I’ve never left. I associate books with certain times and feelings and places in my life, whether the book itself left any lasting impression on me or not. It feels like just yesterday I was reading Asimov’s Foundation (a terrible book) in Kings Domain across from my office during the blisteringly hot Christmas season four years ago; on the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I was sheltering from the rain and reading Susannah Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu (not bad at all) in the warmth of the Draper’s Arms in Ealing, but it was really just 365 days ago. Funny old world.

Anyway, these are the ten best books I read in 2015.

10. Goodbye To All That
goodbye to all that
England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language, and it was newspaper language.

World War I was the epitome of pointless wars. It was a snowballing squabble over alliances and military power which, before anybody could stop it, turned into a brutal industrialised killing machine which robbed the world of half a generation of young men. (That is always worth repeating, because it has become a cliche: World War I, for no gain whatsoever, literally exterminated millions of would-be leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists.) Neither side was in the right or the wrong. It is absolutely incredible how many people, even today, refuse to acknowledge this; how many people still demand to shove this war alongside its younger brother into the box marked “fighting for freedom.”

Few of those people, I suspect, have actually read much about it. As far as WWI memoirs go it’s hard to top that of Robert Graves, who later became a renowned poet and historical novelist. The curious thing is how dispassionately he relates most of it; as though he knows all too well that the war is far bigger than any of them, that nothing he or his fellow officers ever did or said could affect things one speck. All he could do was observe and report. The result, despite its detached tone, is one of the most detailed and grisly war memoirs of all time.

9. Slade House
slade house
Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.

Time was David Mitchell could publish a book and it would inevitably be my number one for the year, but I’m sure one of the world’s most feted contemporary writers won’t be losing sleep at his gradual slide down my annual list at a blog where I’m still too cheap to shell out for a dedicated domain name. Slade House is probably his worst book, but that’s a bit like saying the Wire’s fifth season was its worst: even when Mitchell’s not on form, he’s still great. Slade House is a B-side to last year’s The Bone Clocks: a short and creepy haunted house mystery, with an eerie mansion appearing in the trackless suburban wasteland of Greater London every nine years to claim an unsuspecting victim. Whatever its flaws, Mitchell retains his ability to make you care about characters – even unsavoury ones – within a few dozen pages. In the case of Slade House, that generally has heartbreaking results.

8. Mother of Eden
mother of eden
Men still fear women’s power. No-one ever forgets their mother’s power to give them nourishment or withhold it. And men specially don’t forget it, because they never grow into women themselves, and never lose a child’s craving for the comfort of women’s bodies.

I thought Dark Eden was an excellent sci-fi novel, the really creative kind that we tend not to see a lot of these days; yet I had no interest in reading the sequel, because I thought Chris Beckett had already said everything that needed to be said about an inbred tribe of humans descended from a pair of astronauts stranded on a distant planet of eternal night. I was wrong. Mother of Eden jumps many generations into the future of this strange world, when the descendants of the schism between David and John have spread far across the surface of the planet, creating new societies locked in a sort of extraterrestrial religious Cold War against each other. With a larger and more complex world to juggle, Mother of Eden doesn’t quite hit the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s still fascinating to see Beckett expand one of the most unique and imaginative worlds in contemporary science fiction. I’m disappointed that according to what I’ve read, the third novel in the series won’t take a similar leap into Eden’s future, but I look forward to it nonetheless. (I’m still holding out for a Lord of the Flies or Apocalypto style ending.)

7. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
first fifteen lives harry august
Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.

Harry August is born, he lives, he dies – and he is born again, back where he started in 1919 in the women’s bathroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed train station, with all his memories and experience but with the slate of history wiped clean. His life is an Escher staircase, an ouroboros; and so, armed with a foreknowledge of what the 20th century will hold, he sets out to discover his purpose in this world.

It’s always refreshing to find a sci-fi or fantasy author who can write – not Pulitzer-level stuff, but somebody who can actually craft their sentences well and make a plot work properly, people like George R.R. Martin or Glen Duncan or (see above) Chris Beckett. Claire North is one of these authors, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an absolute corker of a novel: fun, fast, and the perfect kind of engaging sci-fi mystery to read on a long flight, which I was lucky enough to do so. It engages in the obligatory questions about the meaning of life which one would expect from a story about immortals, but, more importantly, gives us plenty of fun with the mechanics and possibilities of ever-lasting life, knowledge of the future and a permanent reset button.

6. Under The Skin
under the skin
She and they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?

On the face of it – if I were to describe it to you right now, assuming you know nothing about it – Michel Faber’s Under the Skin is a completely batshit novel with a crazy premise and a moralistic purpose. And yet somehow it manages to become so much more than that. It begins with the weirdly attractive yet oddly creepy woman named Isserley driving around Scotland picking up hitchhikers for what we soon gather are nefarious purposes. Is she a sex addict? A serial killer? The truth, as we discover, is far more horrifying than that.

Under The Skin is fundamentally an allegorical work, for an aspect of our society which makes me uncomfortable even if I enjoy it too much to actually give it up. But it’s the mark of great science fiction that it makes you consider and re-evaluate something you take for granted as part of everyday life. It’s also a compelling, readable story – and a fantastic accomplishment for a first novel.

5. Railhead
Just before a train went through a K-gate there was a moment of quiet, so short that only railheads caught it, as the wheels moved from the normal K-bahn track to the strange, ancient, frictionless rails which ran through the gate itself. That was what it felt like to Zen when he recognized the girl: a heartbeat’s silence, and then he was in a new world.

Philip Reeve returns explosively to form with Railhead, his first novel for teenage readers in some time – and the first, in my opinion, that comes close to matching the Mortal Engines series for that trifecta of story, spectacle and emotional heft. A richly-layered, deeply imagined sci-fi universe in which travel between planets takes place on sentient teleporting trains, a pantheon of inhuman AIs dwelling in the “data sea,” a rag-tag street thief recruited for a daring heist – what’s not to like?

I can stack the compliments up all day. But most importantly, Reeve still manages an ineffable sense of epic adventure; cliffhanger moments; turns of phrase and character decisions and powerful climaxes. All the reasons we read this kind of fiction, all the reasons we go to the movies, all the reasons we tell stories around campfires. I can’t quite articulate it, but whatever it is, Reeve has it in his bones.

4. Death Comes for the Archbishop
death comes for the archbishop
In New Mexico he always awoke a young man. Not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “Today, today”’ like a child’s.

This is one of the TIME 100, and in that article Richard Lacayo compares the book to a tapestry. I keep coming back to that description because it’s so perfectly apt. Father Latour’s life is nothing more than a series of scenes, encounters and experiences, none of them any more important than the others; nor can his own life be viewed in isolation, because it’s inextricably part of a richer and broader web, comprising all the people who have been part of his lived experience, and he a part of theirs. Willa Cather’s prose is unsympathetic, unempathic; in that sense she reminded me of a more serious and poetic Larry McMurtry. There are certainly beautiful turns of phrase here, marvellous descriptions and passages, and yet I found that a few weeks after reading this book, most of them had filtered out of my head. What remained was what felt like the solid reality of this man’s rich and beautiful life.

3. Aurora
Wherever you go, there you are.

Science fiction, in its purest form, has the purpose of making us think about what’s possible. Science fiction is about the exploration of concepts and ideas. Science fiction is about challenging orthodoxies and upending conventional viewpoints.

Yet science fiction itself, with its associate fandoms, geekery and nerdhood, has developed orthodoxies of its own. One of these is the near-universal opinion that it is humanity’s manifest destiny to colonise the galaxy. It’s an opinion I share, and I have to say that it’s an extremely powerful book which makes you legitimately and respectfully question your own beliefs – or at least question the reasons you hold them, and the outrigger opinions you’ve come to associate with them. Kim Stanley Robinson has always been a deeply moral, political and environmental writer, and in Aurora – although I might dispute some of his facts and conclusions – he makes every sci-fi nerd take a good, long look at why they believe what they believe. This isn’t just a cause-du-jour 2015 novel about climate change and Malthusian catastrophes and environmental stewardship; it’s a novel about what we’re trying to run from, why we’re so keen to leave, and what we think we’re going to find.

That alone would have been enough to give it a spot high on this list. But it’s also a novel with one of the best narrator characters I’ve read in a very long time, and a near-conclusion passage which is one of the most affecting pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I hesitate to say this after the sheer amount of time and paper that went into Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, but I think Aurora might be his best novel. It’s certainly one of the best science fiction novels of the past 30 years.

2. The Remains of the Day
The remains of the day
“Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”

Stevens must have a first name, but we don’t know what it is, and perhaps even he has forgotten it. He lives a life of pure dedication to his position as butler of Darlington Hall: a man living his life not only in servitude to others, but in servitude to the very idea of servitude; to his own obsession with the profession of butlering. He lets other pleasures and opportunities slide on past because of his single-minded dedication to what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing.

Kazuo Ishiguro lays metaphor upon metaphor in a deceptively simple book which has an iceberg of deeper meaning beneath it, and an emotional sucker punch to match that of his more recent (and perhaps more famous) Never Let Me Go. In theme, those two novels reflect each other perfectly. Never Let Me Go is about the cages society builds for us; The Remains of the Day is about the cages we build for ourselves. It’s a sad and beautiful novel which everybody should read.

1. Gormenghast
He is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

From a book which I think everybody should read to a book which is, to put it lightly, not everybody’s cup of tea. How to explain Gormenghast to the uninitiated? How to describe its pleasures, its tedium, its weight, its importance?

I can’t. It simply has to be read. It’s not even one book at all, although I’m counting it as one – it’s two excellent novels, one semi-finished third novel written by an author who was losing his mind, and then a collection of scribbled notes, extrapolated intentions and inevitable musings on the reader’s part about where Mervyn Peake intended to take his epic saga. This all combines to create a single work of art, a single place, a single experience with a single title: GORMENGHAST.

This is a collection of writing so vivid and intense that it almost feels real. It’s a Gothic labyrinth as complex and fascinating as the huge, rambling, decaying castle of Gormenghast itself. The main character is not the lordling Titus Groan who flinches from his hereditary responsibilities, nor the cunning and ruthless Steerpike who plots to climb the ladder and rule the castle; it’s not even the setting of Gormenghast itself, that legendary semi-derelict universe of stone and masonry, in the sense that so many great works have settings indispensable to the tone of the story. No, the main character is Peake’s prose: Gothic in tone, baroque in style, florid and detailed and endlessly compelling. Writing the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Writing like a man composing a symphony; or painting a canvas – one of those great, detailed, fifteen-foot high paintings that hang in the National Gallery. Writing so bizarre and yet so accomplished that it makes the castle city of Gormenghast feel like a real place full of real people, and yet at the same time like an impossible daydream; a memory of a place we once were, which we can no longer reach.

People who’ve read Gormenghast are nodding their heads and agreeing; people who haven’t read Gormenghast have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. All I can say is that you really must read these books. They’re like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.

Six months of blissful unemployment in the first half of the year and a one-hour train commute in the second half of the year means that 2014 was my best year yet for reading, as I just scraped across the line to make it a solid 70 books – a record I doubt I’ll break for some time. Here’s a rundown of the ten best books I read this year.

10. The City and The City
10. the city and the city
He walked with equipoise, possibly in either city. Schrodinger’s pedestrian.

Beszel and Ul Qoma are twin cities with completely different languages, ethnicities, societies and architecture. They sit not side by side, but in the same physical space as each other, with residents of either city trained from birth to “unsee” their opposite numbers. China Mieville’s fascination with cities reaches its zenith in The City and The City, a hugely original creation which touches upon so many aspects of real life cities which seem bizarre when looked at afresh – wealth disparities, people not looking at each other on the tube, the homeless, and far more – yet it does so without forcing these implications upon the reader, leaving the novel, at its heart, a simple crime procedural that just happens to take place in a crazy fantasy city.

9. The Once and Future King
09. the once and future king

Selecting books for this list is often difficult – what exactly does “best” mean? Most enjoyable? Most memorable? Objectively greatest? Most thought-provoking?

T.H. White’s enormous novel The Once and Future King, comprised of five smaller books, is not a piece of fiction I can say I loved, or maybe even liked. Indeed, for most of the middle stretch (i.e. three books worth) I was bored by it. Its tone never sat well with me: deliberately whimsical and satirical, yet also dark and philosophising. But by the time I finished the final volume, The Book of Merlyn (the best in the series), I was ready to stand back and appreciate this enormous work on its own terms: as a long and fascinating attempt by a troubled writer to leave his own mark upon the legends which had long fascinated him. I may not have always enjoyed it, and I still believe it’s a strange and flawed book, but it was also deeply memorable and unique – the sort of book that you’re glad exists simply for its own sake. It wouldn’t have felt right to leave it off this list.

8. The Last Werewolf
08. the last werewolf
There’s a reason humans peg-out around eighty: prose fatigue. It looks like organ failure or cancer or stroke but it’s really just the inability to carry on clambering through the assault course of mundane cause and effect. If we ask Sheila then we can’t ask Ron. If I have the kippers now then it’s quiche for tea. Four score years is about all the ifs and thens you can take. Dementia’s the sane realisation you just can’t be doing with all that anymore.

It’s appropriately ironic that this is a hybrid tale: part monster story, part espionage thriller, richly comic and with one of the best narrators I’ve read in a long time. 200-year-old Jake Marlowe may be a monster and a murderer, but we can forgive him that, because he’s such good company. The Last Werewolf would have reached a higher spot on this list if it didn’t stumble badly towards the end, but it’s still a cracking good novel.

7. Chocky
07. chocky
“And there was another one, too, about ‘where is Earth?’ Now, I ask you – where is Earth? – in relation to what? Oh, yes, he knows it goes round the sun, but where, please, is the sun? And, there were some others – simply not his kind of questions.”

This is an overlooked classic from John Wyndham, one of Britain’s greatest science fiction writers, in which a humble father is distressed to find that his eleven-year-old son appears to have developed an imaginary friend – a voice in his head with all kinds of scientific questions and strange notions about the human race. All of Wyndham’s hallmarks are here: a curiously dated vision of society (even for his time), a stuffy yet enjoyable writing style, a collision between human and alien intelligences. Yet Chocky, his final published work before death, is surprisingly more hopeful about mankind’s future than his previous novels. And compared with his most famous four (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos), most of which have rather abrupt endings, Chocky has perhaps the most satisfying conclusion since The Midwich Cuckoos – and one a great deal more touching and affecting. It’s nice to think that perhaps Wyndham became more optimistic before his death.

6. The Wake
06. the wake
sum thing is cuman

A unique novel set in eleventh century England after the Norman invasion, Paul Kingsnorth has created a phonetic “shadow tongue” comprised entirely of derivatives from Old English words (rather than introduced Romance words which comprise much of the modern language) to better reflect the words and thoughts of the people who lived at the time. In this superstitious world where villagers fear the devils and spirits of the forest in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire, it’s easy to feel unsettled in the opening chapter, as a series of omens and warnings foretell something terrible coming for England. The French invasion may not have been supernatural, but for all the blood and misery it brought, it may as well have been an army of demons. The aftermath of the invasion unfolds through the eyes of Kingsnorth’s marvellously written narrator, Buccmaster of Holland, an arrogant and violent man with a dark history. The Wake is a wonderful case of concept and execution coming together perfectly.

5. Lonesome Dove
05. lonesome dove
“It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.”

Those ten words perfectly sum up the ethos of Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western masterpiece is in many ways a book of two halves. On one hand it’s a plain and easy read which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to somebody who isn’t much of a reader; on the other hand, it’s a thousand pages of deep and affecting literature that very much deserved its Pulitzer win. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted and often funny book; on the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from the realities of the American West, and contains scenes of utter brutality. On the one hand, it’s a nihilistic and realistic novel in which death comes to good people for no good reason; on the other hand, it exhorts us to take joy in the world and find meaning in simple things. As one reviewer put it: “If you only read one Western in your life, make it Lonesome Dove.”

4. Illywhacker
04. illywhacker
His soul was a jellyfish stranded on the shell-grit shore of Corio Bay. All he wanted to do was feel something as good as the air on the Warburton Road in 1910.

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died earlier this year, Peter Carey wrote in the Guardian about how valuable the Latin American writer had been to him as he struggled with his own cultural cringe. Nobody can read Carey’s early stories, or his first novel Bliss, without noticing they take place in locations which are clearly Australian but nonetheless go unnamed. “The absence of placenames in the stories is a good indication of what I was avoiding,” Carey said, “a sign that I was still too young (and damaged) to see that Myrniong was a beautiful strange name and that Wonthaggi was a poem unto itself.”

In Illywhacker, his second novel, this reluctance has been well and truly vanquished. Illywhacker zigzags its way up and down Australia as it follows the life of vagabond, thief, pilot, casanova, snake-catcher and general illywhacker Herbert Badgery, and its paragraphs are dotted with Australian town names that begin to take on a lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Terang, Balliang, Jindabyne, and hundreds of others. The novel sprawls across hundreds of pages and three generations of Herbert’s extended family: a huge, messy, heartfelt picaresque epic. Objectively speaking, Oscar & Lucinda is probably Carey’s better book, but Illywhacker is by far my favourite, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

3. The Magician’s Land
03. the magicians land
He’d been right about the world, but he was wrong about himself. The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring – a moving oasis.

Lev Grossman’s brilliant Magicians trilogy is often incorrectly described as Harry Potter for adults, which is a pathetically shallow analysis. For all its flippant humour and millenial meta-commentary, this trilogy is a surprisingly thoughtful work about unrealised dreams and the bleakness of adulthood. Young people finding that life isn’t what they thought it would be is hardly uncovered ground in literature, but Grossman marries this to the very concept of young adult fiction, and the momentousness, heroism and epic nature that makes up so much of it – setting up an entire generation of kids for dashed hopes and dreams.

It’s a mark of Grossman’s success that he builds this concept into a genuinely successful fantasy: a story that you love reading and a world you enjoy being in. It’s a further mark of his success that The Magician’s Land manages to answer all of those hard questions the earlier books raised, squarely acknowledging that our hopes and dreams probably won’t come true, but still ends on a positive and uplifting note. The Magician’s Land is an excellent conclusion to one of the finest works of fantasy in the last twenty years.

2. The Bone Clocks
02. the bone clocks
The brigadier I knew has left his bombed-out face, leaving me alone with the clock, shelves of handsome books nobody ever reads, and one certainty: that whatever I do with my life, however much power, wealth, experience, knowledge or beauty I’ll accrue, I, too, will end up like this vulnerable old man. When I look at Brigadier Reginald Philby, I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.

David Mitchell has always been known for having a pastiche writing style, switching easily from the viewpoint of a 19th century diarist to a Worcestershire schoolboy to a Korean clone-slave in a dystopian future, all while maintaining his own magical authorial voice, replete with wit and dazzling wordplay. The Bone Clocks returns to the patchwork style we saw in earlier novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, skipping across the threads in the life of Holly Sykes, from 1980s England to the coast of Ireland in a future ravaged by climate change, by way of Cambridge, Switzerland, Iraq, Australia, Iceland and plenty more besides. In the background of Holly’s life, the conclusion to a centuries-long battle between different factions of immortals is being played out.

The Bone Clocks is not David Mitchell’s finest novel; I felt that the framework meant we never truly got to know Holly as a character, and the tone stumbles badly in the penultimate chapter as the immortals come out of the shadows and onto the stage. But it is, nonetheless, a David Mitchell novel, and every sentence is a feast.

1. The War of the Worlds
01. war of the worlds
Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede – a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

No matter that I’ve read and watched and experienced so many adaptations of this story that I already could have written a plot synopsis: the original is the best. I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I finally got around to reading this 116-year-old novel, that it was the most captivating piece of fiction I’d read in a very long time. Wells’ timeless tale of imperial destruction and genocide is a classic for a reason: from the sultry, eerie heat of the summer evening in Woking, to the panicked flight at the Leatherhead ferry, to the horrible stillness of a deserted London, he takes the reader through a series of unforgettable set-pieces as he wreaks apocalyptic devastation on the suburbs of London – which, even though set in the 19th century, still seem the very definition of humdrum normalcy. The War of the Worlds is an enduring classic for a good reason, and even if you know the story, it’s a book you absolutely must read.

10. The Shadow of the Torturer

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

Gene Wolfe’s highly regarded fantasy/science fiction epic is full of tantalising, vague descriptions hinting at the scope of his created world, Urth, which is actually our own Earth hundreds of thousands of years in the future, after civilisations have risen and fallen like tides on a shoreline. (The segment above, though it’s easy to miss it, is a description of an astronaut on the moon .) I found this tiresome by the second or third book in the series, but the first volume is fresh with creative wonder.

9. Earth Abides

Men go and come, but earth abides.

Earth Abides bridges the gap between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, beginning with university student Isherwood Williams surviving the plague that decimates mankind, and forging a group of survivors in the slowly decaying ruins of San Francisco. Eventually, as he grows older and tries but fails to teach his children about their lost heritage, he sinks into dementia knowing that he is the relic of a vanished civilisation, the final link between the wonders of the past and the new hunter-gatherers of the future. Earth Abides is a strongly written science fiction classic intercut with surprisingly beautiful vignettes of mankind’s domain returning to nature.

8. River of Gods

“By the way. In case you ever wonder what the Americans are decoding. They have found something in space and they have no idea what it is.”

A sprawling cyberpunk tale set in a balkanised India in 2047, River of Gods is one of those sci-fi epics that manages to cram in everything: artificial intelligence, first contact, genetic engineering, robotics, climate change, political change, and whatever else you could imagine the future will hold. It’s a coherent and believable vision of a future India, and if it’s a little rambling and unfocused, you can forgive that, because McDonald’s imagination is so grand it’s fun to go along for the ride.

7. Dark Eden

Nothing had changed. All we still had was Eden and each other, five hundred of us in the whole world, huddled up with our blackglass spears and our log boats and our bark shelters.

More than a hundred years ago astronauts Tommy and Angela were stranded on Eden, a rogue planet of eternal night, where green-blooded alien creatures skitter in the glowing light of geothermal trees in tiny valleys surrounded by freezing darkness. Now, with Tommy and Angela long dead, their five hundred descendants are approaching a Malthusian catastrophe as their inbred numbers grow ever more and and the game grows ever less. Chris Beckett’s most impressive achievement, to my eye, was Dark Eden’s overpowering sense of claustrophobia – not just the eternal gloom and the valley only a few miles wide, but the claustrophobia of living in a religious, authoritarian tribe, never able to go anywhere else or do anything different, writhing in the impossible knowledge that you and your people are trapped and alone in the darkest depths of space.

6. The Yellow Birds

Murph called to me once, in the small hours before daybreak, and asked me if I thought we’d be OK. I kept looking out the window, even though the night had covered it over completely with a small layering of ice. A streetlamp glowed with pale orange through the opacity. The air was cool and crisp in the room and I pulled my rough wool blanket tight around me. “Yeah, Murph. We’ll be OK,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.

The Yellow Birds initially appears to be a fairly autobiographical first novel by former soldier Kevin Powers, full of the heartache and anguish and trauma one would expect. As it goes on a mystery begins to develop and we realise that the protagonist, Bartle, has secrets he is hiding about his time in Iraq – secrets that have the military’s criminal investigation division sniffing around. The book is ultimately more about the pain of returning from war than being at war, and Bartle’s mid-book page-long breakdown rant is one of the best pieces of prose I’ve read in a long time.

5. As I Please

By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation but at humanity itself.

Probably the best of the four books that comprise Orwell’s collected essays, letters and reviews, because most of As I Please consists of the column he wrote which bore the same name – short weekly pieces which cover topics as broad as international politics, the joys of gardening, the ideal pub, memories of his time in Burma, American comics, etc. Orwell was not just a great writer but a fascinating man, the kind interested in anything and everything, who enjoyed everything life had to offer and served up an opinion on all of it.

4. Jack Maggs

The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognised it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: ‘Gin at Threepence – Generous Wines – Hot Spiced.’ This one here – it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.

Peter Carey’s twisted take on Dickens’ Great Expectations, one doesn’t need to have read the original novel to enjoy this tale of of a misunderstood convict returning home to London from the penal colonies of New South Wales. As an Australian reader, I was most struck by how my home appears as a strange and exotic place in the eyes of Maggs’ London acquaintances – a country of parrots and pelicans, with names like Parramatta and Taree, mentioned only through Maggs’ words and memories, standing in stark contrast to the familiar Dickensian landscape in which the novel actually takes place – sooty London and green and pleasant Gloucestershire. Peter Carey seems incapable of writing a dull paragraph, and while he does a brilliant job of imitating Dickens’ style, this is unmistakeably a book of his own magical prose.

3. The Dog Stars

Bangley, tell me what the fuck you want me to do? What should I do?

Breathe, I want you to breathe. They are stalking you Hig. They have all day. The way they see it. No rush. You are moving slow, they will close the distance. Little by little. Then they will charge you. They have done it before. They move like they have done this before. Copy?

The Dog Stars brings nothing new to the post-apocalyptic genre, but everything it does, it does brilliantly. Peter Heller’s first-person train-of-thought writing style is difficult to get into at first but soon becomes lyrical, painting a beautifully haunting picture of a derelict Colorado. The main character’s escape from a group of pursuers on his way back to his fortified airfield, aided only by his ex-military partner over the radio, is one of the most suspenseful set pieces I read all year.

2. Lord of the Flies

“-Or else,” said the Lord of the Flies, “We shall do you. See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?”

Anyone who can still remember the cruelty of children – the schoolyard politics, the bullying, the falling into line, the dominance of strong personalities whether they’re good or bad – will find Lord of the Flies to be disturbingly plausible. I’d seen the 1990 film version, but knowing how the story unfolds does nothing to alter the brutal impact of this bloodthirsty novel. Although it can sometimes read like it was designed to have essay questions for the class at the back, it’s nevertheless a brilliant and gut-wrenching book that deserves its literary reputation.

1. Oscar & Lucinda

This was in Devon, near Torquay. To pretend – as Theophilus did – that this was almost tropical, is like referring to a certain part of Melbourne as “the Paris end of Collins Street.” It is quite reasonable if you have never been to Paris, but once you have been there you can see the description as nothing more than wishful thinking. When I visit Devon I see nothing tropical. I am surprised, rather, that so small a county can contain such a vast and indifferent a sky. Devon seems cruel and cold. I look at the queer arrangement of rocks up on the moor and think of ignorance and poverty and cold, always the cold.

While there were moments in Oscar and Lucinda where I might fairly say I was bored, this is one of those books that grows so strong in retrospect, and leaves so many little moments glinting in your memory. Lucinda arriving in Circular Quay on a barge smelling of cabbages; Oscar’s father’s heart-wrenching farewell gift on the docks at Southampton; Oscar washing out inkpots in a Sydney laneway;a sudden burst of cockatoos flying behind a bushranger’s shoulder as he levels his pistol at Wardley-Fish. Most of all – beyond Carey’s endlessly entertaining, half-funny half-tragic prose – I was amazed by this novel because after 450 pages of mostly whimsical romantic comedy, it suddenly plunges into a dark and brutal nightmare, coming to a horrifying conclusion on the Bellinger River as flying foxes flap and flutter in the dusk above the sound of screams. One of the finest Australian novels I’ve ever read.

Archive Calendar

June 2023