My Top 10 Favourite Books of 2009

I’ve read around 30 novels this year, mostly science fiction and fantasy but also some crime novels and a few popular science books too. Here are my 10 favourite books that I’ve read this year. The majority were released this year, although a few are older and one isn’t actually out until spring 2010. So, if you want a few recommendations or ideas on what to read over the holidays then read on!

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The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

kenSet in a near-future Edinburgh, Ken’s second techno-thriller has creationist theme parks, religious robots, fundamentalist presbyterians, and a cracking whodunnit to drive the story along. I could never quite get into his earlier work, but after meeting him a few times I tried again and have enjoyed everything of his from Newton’s Wake onwards. His next novel The Restoration Game seems to continue the near-future thriller theme (and again features my home town) – can’t wait!

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Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

stampI’d tried reading a Courtenay Grimwood before (RedRobe) but couldn’t get into it and gave up after a couple of chapters. Stamping Butterflies was a summer pick  at the Edinburgh SF Book Group so I read it while sunning myself in Portugal. I loved the 1960s Moroccan scenes the best; the modern-day Gitmo-style sections were good too, but the  far-future historical-China simulation chapters were rather puzzling. Although I was a bit confused by the end, I’d enjoyed the style and plan to read his Arabesk trilogy.

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Brasyl by Ian McDonald

brasylAnother new author for me, and another book with three separate story threads: one set in the past, one the present, and one the future. I found it a bit of a struggle to get into at first, but once I’d gotten used to the Portuguese words and street slang I started to enjoy it more. McDonald is a skilled writer whose prose sparkles with energy. He who won the BSFA Best Novel 2008 award for this book and after a few chapters I could see why. There’s a degree of quantum weirdness to the plot, but fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into too much silliness. At the back of the book is a suggested soundtrack to the book, so of course I used that to compile a Brasyl Playlist on Spotify (which Ian said was “very cool!“)

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The Sweet Forever by George P. Pelecanos

320247Yet another new writer to me, I picked this up mostly because I’d heard he’d written for HBO’s The Wire. Glad I did: set in the 1980s, this is a fast-paced crime thriller set around a record store in downtown Washington DC.

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The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

51LCzFqRpGLWhen it came to my turn to pick a book the SF book club, this is what I chose after reading about Chris Beckett in an interview with SF author Tony Ballantyne. I got in touch with Chris to ask him to tell us a bit about the book and its themes. Chris replied: “You might want to think about body versus soul, science versus religion, love versus sex… And questions like ‘What do we mean when we say we love someone?’  ‘Are there things that religion helps us make sense of that science can’t?’ ‘Why do we get confused between the way things seem on the outside and what they actually are?’ ” The world in the book is divided between countries ruled by fundamentalist religions (all in conflict with each other) and a small enclave ruled by rigidly rationalist and atheist refugees from the rest of the world. Chris then set the scene for us “The protagonist George falls in love (or thinks he does) with Lucy who is really a sex-robot, a robot covered in human flesh who resembles a pretty girl.  Lucy comes alive.  In the atheist enclave she is just a machine: her apparent ‘life’ is just a random glitch with her programming.  In the religious lands outside she is an abomination, a mockery of creation, fit only for destruction.  George can see that she really is sentient, but even he is confused about the nature of this sentience and fundamentally misunderstands what she really is…

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Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

201671Another book group pick and one that I must admit I hadn’t really expected to enjoy it so much as I thought it might be too, er, feminist for me. But Nights at the Circus was a joy to read from start to end: I was hooked by about page 2 thanks to Carter’s wonderful writing skills, bawdy dialogue and fascinatingly weird array of characters. The story, with its elements of magic realism and occasional surrealism, takes the characters from Victorian London to Russia, ending up in the frozen tundra of Siberia. It’s not often I laugh out loud while reading a book, but some of the dialogue here is so unexpectedly fruity I couldn’t help myself.  Highly recommended for genre fans looking for something a little different.

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Iron Angel by Alan Campbell

517I9HbKJKL._SL500_This is book 2 in a trilogy that started with the excellent Scar Night. I was at the book launch for that on a night where (for reasons I won’t go into here) I was adopted for the night by Alan’s Mum and proclaimed by his editor as “Alan’s first fan.” I was a bit embarassed as I hadn’t even read the book yet but luckily I really enjoyed its new-weirdness tale of angels, assassins,  and Deepgate, the city held up by mighty chains hanging over an abyss into hell itself. The story continues in Iron Angel which takes the characters out of Deepgate and into the deserts and lands beyond. It’s the chapters set in hell though that really show what a twisted imagination Alan Campbell has: I loved the sentient slaved weapons and furniture, and new character John Anchor was almost as brilliant a creation as the dark angel Carnival. The book races along, introducing some new grotesquery or dark humour with every chapter, but then infuriatingly stops just as all hell breaks loose. It’s quite a cliffhanger, but luckily the third and final part is already out in hardback.

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Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

61EKMXHTKKL._SL500_After spending my teens reading every fantasy book I could get my hands on I’d finally had enough by my early twenties and moved on to reading science fiction instead. It wasn’t until the new dark wave came along with its gritty realism and lack of dragons, elves, etc. that I started to cautiously read fantasy books again. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station was superb, as was Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Then I read about a new English writer called Joe Abercrombie so thought I’d give him a go. I’m so glad I did: Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is the best sequence of books I’ve read for years. I thought he was so good he went straight onto my must-buy-in-hardback list (an elite club of mine with only three writers). Best Served Cold is a standalone novel set in the same world but with (mostly) new characters. It retains the grit, brutality and dark humour of the trilogy while adding a wider view of his world and perhaps more complicated characters. Despite the ultimitely destructive path of its beautifully flawed protagonists, there are still tiny glimpses of redemption and hope amongst the relentless violence and vengeance. I loved the ingenious plans and schemes devised to off the bad guys: it’s wicked, furious fun that has lasting impact. I can’t wait for the next slice!

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Hilldiggers by Neal Asher

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This was my tenth Neal Asher book and probably the most enjoyable book of his I’ve read so far. So many SF books just don’t know how to end, but this isn’t one of them. Set in his established Polity universe, Hilldiggers is a standalone  novel that’s an ideal starter for anyone wishing to find out what all the fuss is about without having to commit to a whole series. Hilldiggers is an exciting space opera that’s full of action and is tightly plotted by an author who’s obviously at the top of his game. I love the Cormac books but sometimes feel a little let down at the end, or at least until I pick up the next one to find out what happens next. Hilldiggers on the other hand is Asher’s most satisfying read: it’s a page-turner from the start and doesn’t sag once throughout its 550-odd pages.

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Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

51z+hjbSphLI’ve been a massive fan of Alastair Reynolds ever since his Revelation Space came out in 2000 AD. He famously “got £1 Million To Write Some More Space Operas” back in the summer and after meeting him at Worldcon in Glasgow I think this could not have happened to a nicer guy. A new Alastair Reynolds book is always the highlight of my reading year. Although Terminal World isn’t out until March 2010, luckily a friend of mine in the trade knew how much of a fan I was and lent me his advance review copy. (thanks Joe!)

Stylistically, Terminal World is pure Al Reynolds: expert writing, fantastic ideas, decaying technology, but plot-wise it initially seems quite a departure from his previous work. The dirigibles on the cover are the first clue, and after a few chapters it’s quite clear that space travel is but a distant memory. Reminiscent of Gene Wolf’s Book of the New Sun series, Terminal World is set on Earth thousands of years in the future where knowledge of past technology has for the most part been lost. This world has slow zones where differing levels of technology can (or can’t) operate, and anti-zonal medication is essential for the survival of the remnant factions of the human race. Ironically this Earth is more alien than many alien worlds from his previous books, and in a way that makes Terminal World feel more fantasy than sci-fi. Having worked for ESA, Al Reynolds is probably the most scientifically qualified sci-fi writer around, so it’s interesting to see how he tackles what might be seen to primitive 21st-century minds as “magical” elements.

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UPDATE

Prolific book blogger Mark Chitty reviewed Terminal World on his blog Walker of Worlds. I added some additional comments, including this:

There may have seemed to be a few loose ends, but ultimately I didn’t have a problem with that. Seasoned SF readers could probably fill in the blanks: in fact, I liked how there wasn’t too much exposition or info-dumping to wrap things up, and that several alternative explanations were posited by the characters. For once this made the reader think about what had happened.

I’m glad this seems to tie-in with Al’s intentions

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  • Ooh thank you very much!

  • I have to disagree on your review, Hilldiggers was a disappointing read. Maybe it’s just not my thing because I felt the scope lacking and the whole story didn’t hold together as well as I’d liked. I haven’t read anything else by Asher so maybe there are better books by him.

    If you like fast paced thriller SF, I recommend Richard Morgan. Altered Carbon and Fallen Angels are two great thrillers that will cause you to skip sleep, likely. I’m in the middle of Market Forces now, which has a bit of a slow start. Will see how it turns out!

    Also, if you haven’t read it yet, get Pushing Ice by Reynolds. A very satisfying read IMO!

  • Thanks for your comment Jakob. Pity you didn’t like Hilldiggers – perhaps try one of his Polity-based novellas instead (Prador Moon or Shadow of the Scorpion). I loved Richard Morgan’s Kovacs books, exciting and ground-breaking stuff. I enjoyed Market Forces too, but Black Man dragged and I didn’t like his fantasy book The Steel Remains at all I’m afraid.

    I agree about Pushing Ice – a personal favourite of mine!

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