The Books of 2009

This is, unfortunately, a somewhat more abbreviated account than I had originally intended. Plan A was to do a complete run-down of everything I read in 2009, trying to get some sense of how my part of the elephant felt. Plan B is a top ten list. Well, a top ten list and some stats.

Stats first, then. I read 69 books in 2009; slightly down on the last few years. Of these, 80% were sf or sf-related non-fiction; 54% were first published in 2009, 39% were by Brits, 41% by women and 22% by people of colour (or, 45% were by white men). Of those books not published in 2009, discovery of the year was perhaps Rana Dasgupta, whose linked story suite Tokyo Cancelled (2005) I picked up somewhat on a whim, and is still lingering with me now; though the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Fever and Spear (2002 trans. 2005) gives it a run for its money, and the book-I-should-have-got-around-to-long-before-now award goes without question to Middlemarch. Also worth mentioning here: Lao She’s Cat Country (1932, trans. 1970), and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To … (1977), which, of the fiction I’ve read by Russ, is the work whose impressiveness is least caveated by the passage of time, and the one I would recommend to those not yet familiar with her. Disappointments in this group were relatively few; neither Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (2006) nor Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) quite lived up to my expectations of them, but as dispraise goes, that’s pretty mild.

Onward! The focus of my interest, of course, is the subgroup of sf or sf-related books published in 2009. I should say that I’m using an inverted version of the Hugo Award’s definition of 2009, here: that is, if it was either first published in English in 2009, or first published in the UK in 2009, I’m considering it a 2009 book. Consequently, including one book read in 2008, and five read this year, there are 41 books in this subgroup, of which 44% are by Brits, 86% are fiction (of which, making broad assignments, 42% are sf, 58% fantasy), 52% are by women, and 17% by people of colour (leaving the white-man percentage roughly the same, at 42%). I had a good year’s reading: it’s hard to pick a top ten that leaves out such books as the first volume of Hoshruba (whether or not I will have the stamina to read further volumes); Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (first published 1993; a book that addresses some of the same themes as China Mieville’s The City & The City, but to my mind more successfully); Chris Beckett’s Marcher (a very clever, and admirably restrained, many-worlds novel); Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (a first novel that deserves greater praise than “very promising”, though it is); Deborah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings (a first collection of which the same can be said); Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island (mild reservations about the shape of the novel aside, a delight to read); Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (on which I have no doubt I will continue to chew for some time); Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth (an evocative wilderness novel, and a fascinating exercise in sustained uncertainty of genre: I hope to write this up in more detail at some point); Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet (despite my reservations about it); Marcel Theroux’s Far North (under-appreciated, I think); or Jo Walton’s Lifelode (on which I agree with Walton’s afterword, which admits that the book it becomes is lesser than the book she wanted to write; but the first half of the novel, which is closest to her intentions, is extraordinary; one of those books that really should not have appeared only from a small press). Some novels, certainly, left me underwhelmed – Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, The City & The City and perhaps Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold being the ones that might attract most disagreement – but only a handful stood out as genuine disappointments. Nancy Kress can do better than Steal Across the Sky; and I certainly hope that Jesse Bullington can do better than The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. There are, of course, a great many books I didn’t get to: of those, the ones whose omission I feel most keenly are probably Stephen Baxter’s Ark (given how highly I rated Flood), Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, Robert Holdstock’s Avilion (because I haven’t yet read Mythago Wood; yes, yes, I know), and Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit (because I told myself I’d read the Aleutian trilogy first – yes, yes, I know!).

But anyway: here are the ten books that I recommend most heartily, in alphabetical order by author.

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: a first novel of great ambition and remarkable power, and a work of science fiction that feels grounded in our present like nothing else I read this year.
  • The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham: the most purely enjoyable 2009 book I’ve read, a marriage of the political and the epic that builds fruitfully on the already-solid foundation provided by The War with the Mein (2007).
  • Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin: beautiful, wise, generous, and all the other words that are so regularly applied to Le Guin’s fiction.
  • UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo: a short, relatively quiet novel that, as I said when I first read it, suggests much with its sparing narration, and provokes much in its reader; or at least in me.
  • Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald: the opposite of Guo, in some ways: bold, vigorous stories that deepen and strengthen McDonald’s vision of a future India.
  • The Ask & The Answer by Patrick Ness: a sequel that delights in not providing more of the same; desperately uncomfortable at times, but – I’m allowed to use this once, right? – unputdownable.
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: a brilliant ghost story, but also (this is not said enough about Oyeyemi, I think) at times, brilliantly funny: serious enough to know when to be playful.
  • Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson: for all that Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary writers, I keep missing my chance to write about his work at any length. But between them Adam Roberts and John Clute have said much of what I would want to say about Galileo’s Dream: the marvellous sanity of its fictive universe, the skill with which it dissects time, memory and history, the clarity of its portraiture.
  • The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh: a collection whose only real flaw is that it doesn’t collect all of Singh’s fiction: but what is here should be read.
  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield: surely, by this point, I don’t need to say anything else about this one. Inventive; unsentimental; captivating.

20 thoughts on “The Books of 2009

  1. Interesting stuff. Not to be critical, but mightn’t have made sense to post this before the cut-off for BSFA award nomination? Or were you deliberately holding off?

  2. Deliberately holding off. I felt it would be awkward to shift between a sort of dispassionate Voice Of The BSFA and a “here’s what I think should be nominated!” post. Equally, I wanted to get this done before the shortlists are announced, hence its somewhat abbreviated nature.

  3. There are a whole seven books on that top-ten list that I haven’t read. Yet more to catch up on….

    On a side note, have you seen Iain Emsley’s review of The Borthers Grossbart in the current Interzone? It’s quite interesting — he enjoyed it much more than we did, and I think he’s on to something with his reading. Though I’m still not inclined to go back and re-read the book myself.

  4. seven books

    That’s about as many as I hadn’t read from your list, so don’t worry. As I say, we’re all feeling the elephant…

    And no, I haven’t seen that review; haven’t got around to ordering Interzone yet. (I keep forgetting I can’t just go to Borders and buy it.) I will make a note to look at it, though.

  5. Oh, I’ve given up worrying about stuff like that. I’ve (somewhat reluctantly) come to accept that the TBR pile is less a thing than a state of being…

  6. I’m reading Spirit at work via the free pdf – thanks Gwyneth! – (from a distance it totally looks like I’m proofing a transcript) and find myself frequently wishing I had read the Aleutian trilogy so I think you’ve made the right choice. (You can probably wait to read Ark too, but that’s just my humble opinion… also given how highly I rated Flood!)

    PS Adam I really liked YBT if it’s any consolation :)

  7. I’m still hoping to fit them in this year, fool that I am. This will be easier if Spirit pops up on an award shortlist or two, of course… (And for folks at home, the pdf Jessica is referring to can be found here!)

  8. Ah, now I have a starting point for my Hugo reading preparations.

    I’ve heard nothing but wonderful about The Windup Girl, but I wasn’t a fan of the Galileo’s Dream. I’m not much of a fan of Robinson, but this one in particular struck me that it wasted a fair bit of time in the weeds.

  9. Middlemarch! *sudden George Eliot revulsion*

    Mind you I did last try to read it as a student. Perhaps one can go back.

  10. Interesting list, but somewhat limited. Stunted?

    I wasn’t willing to forgive Paolo the lumpiness of the plot or the repetition, so into the “promising first novel” category it goes. Without the hype for his short stories, which are excellent, this wouldn’t have gotten the amount of praise it has gotten.

    Re Jesse Bullington’s Sad Tale–you’re being awfully unkind (snotty? disdainful?) to a very good first novel. Some other opinions, since you’re sometimes politically selective re your links:

    Regardless, given that you yourself will never produce a work of literary fiction as good as the Bullington, perhaps you ought to cut him a little bit of a break. At least turn down the disdain a notch or two.


  11. 26 days! I think that might be a new record, usually your annual resolution not to be a prick on the internet lasts at least a month.

    I know you always go into a shame spiral after you do this sort of shit and realise everyone has seen you being an idiot so I hope it isn’t too long or deep this time and you are back to your old self soon.

  12. Jeff:

    you’re being awfully unkind (snotty? disdainful?) to a very good first novel

    Clearly Niall didn’t think that Grossbart was a good first novel or he wouldn’t have expressed the hope that Bullington can do better.

    (Full disclosure: I resemble Niall’s remark. I thought Grossbart demonstrated a lot of skill, but not its satisfying and successful application.)

    Regardless, given that you yourself will never produce a work of literary fiction as good as the Bullington, perhaps you ought to cut him a little bit of a break.

    This is, frankly, baffling. I’m never going to make a $300M movie, good or otherwise. Does that make me ineligible to point out that Avatar is poorly written and dull? What you’re basically calling for here is the abolition of reviewing as a pursuit in its own right. In which case bringing up Grossbart‘s positive reviews as a counterpoint to Niall’s negative response is more than a little hypocritical, as most of them come from non-authors.

  13. Absurd parting shot aside, there are some comments there that deserve response:


    I’d like to hear more about this. In what sense stunted, other than — I cynically conclude — that I only read five of the books on your list (plus about half of Eclipse 3), and only agreed with your assessment of one of them? What do you see as missing? I admit I’m surprised how small the British presence on my list is this year …

    I wasn’t willing to forgive Paolo the lumpiness of the plot

    Others have noted this, but personally I think the “lumpiness” works for the book, not against it. Part of the point of the first half or two-thirds of The Windup Girl for me is the sense of inertia, perhaps more precisely of frustration: of plans not coming to fruition, of events suddenly chasing course, of partial stories. For me this is borne of the complexity of the world being described, and of the characters being trapped in their navigation of it. Then you get Emiko’s angry escape, and the novel suddenly becomes fluid, more coherent: because the character has discovered a new way of navigating the world, which is to say a new way of looking at it.

    Re Jesse Bullington’s Sad Tale

    As Abigail indicates, if it wasn’t clear before, I disagree with your assessment of the book’s quality. And, yes, with the assessment of all those nice brief glowing review quotes you linked. I’ve written a review for Foundation, but the short version is that although, like Abigail, I recognise Bullington is talented, I felt the specific application of that talent — particularly as regards the half-hearted pseudo-academic frame — verged on the disingenuous.

  14. If there’s any faux-intellectualism to be had then it lies in Jeff’s disingenuous and barely coherent justification for his unprovoked and unwarranted drive-by.

    What makes Jeff’s comments even more wrong-headed is the fact that Niall was not particularly cutting or harsh about the book. He simply voiced the (actually quite supportive) opinion that its author can do better.

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