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Distilled highlights of 2018 in books

While I enjoy the cleaning out and resetting aspect of the new year ritual, I have never really been one for stocktaking at the end of the year. The exception is books. One of my favourite parts of January 1st is going back over the books I have read in the preceding year and having a look at which ones have really stayed with me. I thought I would do this in public this year, so that this could double as a recommendations list for those so inclined.

Gnomon -- Nick Harkaway
A complex, but quite wonderful book set in part in a near(ish) future dystopia, but with narrative strands from ancient Carthage, via contemporary Greece and London, to a posthuman far future. Like all Harkaway's books any attempt to place it in a genre box will meet with problems -- think of it as scifi meets police procedural told by the lovechild of Scheherazade and Borges. It continues the concern with seductive order and control vs the possibility of heterogeneity which I have been tracing in his previous books (I really must finish that article). I like how this book balances political urgency without becoming didactic.

Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures -- Elly Blue (ed.)
This is exactly what it sounds like -- a collection of feminist science fiction short stories in which bikes play prominent parts. The fourth of its kind, apparently, so there is more where this came from. One or two were a bit odd (yes, "sexually transmitted immunity to plague", I am looking at you); but the idea of the bicycle as a tool and symbol of independece (whether from men or The Man) appeals to me (as both a cyclist and a feminist Victorianist).

Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers -- Arundhati Roy
I read Roy's Ministry of Utmost Happiness last year (and liked it a lot), and this could be a companion volume. I think it may have been written during the fermentation process for that novel. This is one of the best treatments of the Modi phenomenon I have read, and terrifying in the human cost it details. All the more so, as so much of her analysis is applicable to the far right across the world: the unfortunate partnership of nationalism and rampant capitalism.

The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin
2018 was the year we lost Le Guin. Waking up to that news after having spent some years fully expecting her to be immortal was quite a blow. I spent that day rereading this book, which to me more than any has been the quintessential Le Guin. So often when I talk about this book, it is in analysis -- the use of insider/outsider perspectives, the attempt to create a genderless world, the pronouns, &c. But reading it this time, I remembered primarily how much I love Estraven.

How to Suppress Women's Writing -- Joanna Russ
Glotologgish "has recently entered intergalactic slang as a synonym for ridiculous self-deception bolstered by wide-spread and elaborate social fictions leading to the massive distortion of information". I oscillated between excitement at the concise and clear outlining of the problem and a kind of depressed tiredness because it is all still so familiar. As the cover of my edition succinctly sums up:
She didn't write it. (But if it is clear that she did...) She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It is political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. ("Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that is all she ever...") She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. It's scifi!) She wrote it, but she had help (Robert Browning, Branwell Brontë. Her own "masculine side".) She wrote it but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help...) She wrote it, but...
It made me resolve (yet again) to read more outside the one book held up as the worthwhile book by a woman.

Good Omens -- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Sometimes nothing else will do. I get cravings for this book. I read about Aziraphale's guilty expression and can feel myself relaxing. Armageddon has never made me so cheerful. Conspiracy theories and spiritualists never inspired such warm and fuzzy feelings. Turns out all you need is an angel with a book store and a demon with gardening know-how. I thought a bit about the echoes of Douglas Adams this time, wondering whether they were conscious tributes or accidental echoes. There is a tv series coming, and you should make sure you read the book first. Do it. Doit. Doitnow!

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone -- Jordan Stratford & Kelly Murphy
I got this for my cousin's kid, but could not resist a book about Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley solving crime. I wish I could have read this at 11, but I enjoyed it at 35, too. The book is full of delightful Victorian allusions and references, and it has for ever established my headcanon for how Mary and Percy B. met -- I don't care what the history books say.

Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World -- Edward Saïd
As always with Saïd, I was struck by how little things change. He details how the media covered the Arab world, primarily with regard to Palestine and Iran, and how the image of the Arab terrorist (which is currently ubiquitous) was constructed. He traces the results of the nefarious combination of not allowing whole groups of people to speak for themselves, and then offering experts whose interests align with their opponents. And as always, he provides extended quotes from "experts" whose statements made me worried someone would read over my shoulder and assume I was reading some kind of bigoted Islamophobic hit-piece. It is hard, reading this, not to wonder whether Donald Trump's obsession with Islam stems from watching too much bad television in the 80s.

The Lathe of Heaven -- Ursula K. Le Guin
While the taoist tendency in Le Guin does not correspond to my way of relating to the world (accepting what is has never been my forte), I really liked this book. It carries over some of the fascination with dreaming from The Word for World is Forest, but here a man finds his dreams can change the world around him. He is not thrilled by the prospect, despite living in an overpopulated, post-climate change dystopia. His psychologist is. Complications arise.

Jingo -- Terry Pratchett
One of my favourite books in the City Watch cycle of Discworld (I embarked on a read-through this spring). And, alas, perennially topical. There is more of Rosa Luxembourg than you would think in this book. Critiques of the military-industrial complex and nationalism's inherent tendency to dehumanise the other are rarely this funny.

The 7th Function of Language -- Laurent Binet
I suspect I was for once nearly the ideal reader. I walked past it on the book-shop shelf, and recognised Barthes from the corner of my eye (despite most of his face being obscured). It is a spy thriller steeped in references to and satire over the literary theory (and more, theorists) of the late 70s, early 80s. On the whole it reads like a homage to Umberto Eco. And Eco deserved an homage. I rather liked the jabs at BHL and Sollers. To the extent that I recently came across a reference to the former in some unrelated setting and started giggling to myself.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever -- James Tiptree, Jr.
Possibly the finest short story collection in the English language. I had read several of these stories at one time or another -- Tiptree is one of science fiction's Greats -- but there is something about sitting down to read a whole collection. She has some of the same quality as Le Guin, in that I get sucked into the stories very fast. The end of a story feels a little like surfacing after a dream. And I end up reacting badly to people wanting to engage me in idle chit-chat while reading these.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary -- Anita Anand
This is the story of Sonja Duleep Singh, a Suffragette who was the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, but grew up to embrace radical politics. I learnt a lot I did not know about the Punjabi and some new stuff about the Suffragettes. Mostly I liked how this was focused through the three sisters. There were so many points of privilege and the lack thereof, and their various intersections in real people (whether race, sex, sexuality or class). I was a little annoyed at first about how coy Anand was about Catherine and her "intimate friend" or "very close friend" Lina Schäfer, but on the whole this is a book well worth reading.

Night Watch -- Terry Pratchett
My favourite City Watch book of them all (which is saying something). I try to read it every year around the 25th of May, and this year our lilacs actually bloomed on time. Back story has always been the most direct way to my heart, and a young Vetinari is like catnip. I also find that I have increasing appreciation for satire of officers and soldiers and the matter of stupid orders. That said, I must add my traditional caveat when extolling this book: This is not where you start Discworld. You will get so much more out of this book if you know the characters.

Mrs Dalloway -- Virginia Woolf
A couple of years ago, Elaine Showalter suggested we celebrate Dallowday on the 13th of June. Unbeknownst to me it had since been rescheduled for the third Wednesday of June, but I stuck to the first in my reading this year. I forget between each reading how well this book flows. I noticed I have become much more familiar with the relevant area of London since I read it last. I now want to read it on a bench in Regent's Park. Or just move about the city with the book, reading each bit where it happens. I have no idea why people keep going on about James Joyce when this book exists.

Persuasion -- Jane Austen
Austen is another author I go to when stressed. I could have put any one of her books on the list (Mansfield Park, which I generally avoid, has some very interesting observations on power and powerlessness which I had not really noted before), and her wit and satire and all-round wonderfulness carries over across her books. But there is something about Persuasion.

Call for the Dead -- John Le Carré
Somehow I had omitted reading the first Smiley novel until this past year. I had convinced myself that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the first Smiley book, though I did find it odd that he should be dropped into it in such a subtle way and with such apparent forethought. Things make much more sense now. As do a number of other aspects of the later books. Which means: reread time! This sets me up nicely for 2019.

Triton -- Samuel R. Delany
Delany is glorious in ever new and wonderful ways. Though really hard to explain to people who have not read the book. There are humans on moons in the solar system. They have interesting fashions. And political trouble with sudden consequences. I loved how the main character was sent up every which way for his bigotry and general self-centredness, and how the book took a philosophical and political turn. I suspect Delany must have been reading (about?) post-structuralist theory while writing it. Metalogics as a field is one (glorious, did I mention?) thing, but particularly the lecture about the dead scientist at the end seemed to draw on the lives of all the theorists. I rather liked Lawrence.

Death in Ten Minutes. Kitty Marion: Activist. Arsonist. Suffragette. -- Fern Riddell
Another entry in the less mainstream Suffragette history that has been popping up lately (making me very happy). This time, centred on the life of Kitty Marion, who participated in the more violent side of Suffragette action. I like the book's idea of investigating where the lines of acceptable struggle goes. At what point is violence justified? We must celebrate Suffragettes and their achievements, but can this be separated from those who placed bombs on trains? It was very interesting, particularly in how it treated the radicalisation of Marion (I almost wanted to light a few fires myself). The material was clearly wonderful, and the account of how it had been (purposefully) disregarded was very interesting. I also liked how it showed the meeting of suffragettes and the birth control movement.

Agrippina -- Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore: A Biography of the Most Extraordinary Woman in the Roman World -- Emma Southon
This is a history of Agrippina the Younger, generally reviled sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius, and mother of Nero. I helped fund this through Unbound, and it is in contention for best use of money this year. When I finally received it, I spent a Saturday giggling to myself in my chair in front of the fire and reading snatches out loud to Tor. It has a wonderfully loose style, but it does not come at the cost of iron control when it comes to facts and the lack thereof. I like how clear Southon is on the scarcity of sources and on the foundations (or lack thereof) on which she constructs the portrait. I also like her Agrippina a lot. And the portraits of older historians (especially the swivel-eyed Tacitus) were glorious.

Summerland -- Hannu Rajaniemi
Started reading this to get away from the news (full of idiots discriminating against women) and found idiots discriminating against women, but with ghosts. I rather liked it, though. It is a spy story spanning life and afterlife (or rather -lives -- turns out they are ideologically determined). I enjoyed tracing (the traces of) real history. The game appeals to me, and Rajaniemi is a master of allusion. I still prefer the Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, but this works.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilization -- Margalit Fox
Another contender for best book of the year. I remember wanting to decipher Linear B as a child (someone had told me of the mystery, but neglected to mention it had been solved), and it was interesting to see how it was done. And really, really impressive. Also, frustrating and infuriating to read about yet another Rosalind Franklin in Alice Kober and the host of impediments that kept her from completing the task. She had the skill, but not the time, and what time she had was eaten up by (amongst others) an entitled Oxford done who felt entitled to her unpaid transcription and secretarial work. Her letters trying to politely point out that the work she was doing was not the work she should be doing serves as a cautionary tale.

Twenty Years After -- Alexandre Dumas
I am reading these books in English for the first time. I have read them in Norwegian and French: the Norwegian translator cut half of the third book (because who would want all that delicious court gossip?), and my French is not good enough for a relaxing read. English, perversely, is the perfect language here. A bit of swashbuckling, some desperately heartfelt stuff from Athos, some sneakiness from Aramis, and a cunning plan or six. I had forgotten the heavy hints that Aramis is the father of Mme de Longueville's son. Grimaud and le Duc de Beaufort are solid gold. And when Athos bares his breast and tells d'Artagnan to kill him rather than suffer dishonour.... well. I love it all. ALL. Except Mordaunt, who is creepy as fuck. I even love the editor's snide footnotes on Dumas' liberties with history.

I have noticed, however, that I am sliding back into the white corner (out of 72 books, 40 were written by women -- though that figure is disproportionately due to Agatha Christie and Jane Austen; only 10 were written by authors of colour, 4 of which were women). Delightful as many of the male, pale persuasion are, I hereby again resolve to read 25% women of colour in 2019.

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