Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Top Books for 2018

This is my fifth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them.

There's a Zen story about a monk who went to the market square and overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
"Which is your best cut of meat?" said the customer.
"They are all the best," said the butcher. "I have nothing here that isn't the best."
Hearing this, the monk was enlightened.

Sadly, I can't say the same for the books I read in 2018. In fact, my feeling is that they're a poorer crop than in previous years. I read more books than last year, but - well, let's look at the numbers.

My total numbers are up again, with 94 (complete) books read for the first time, instead of the 85 I read in 2017 and the 77 I read in 2016. Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal

Quantity is up, but quality is down a bit; only six five-star books this year, and one of them was a re-read, which I've not counted in the figures, so effectively half as many five-star discoveries as was usual in the past few years. And I was overall less satisfied with the books, and felt I was being more generous with my ratings than perhaps I should be. Not sure exactly what's going on there; maybe I'm just getting fussier.

Once again, the bulk of the books I read get four stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either significantly lacking in their execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I got suckered into finishing a couple of books that ended up with two stars, something I managed to avoid last year. I don't usually finish books I think are going to be one (or two) stars, and I don't rate books I don't finish.

Goodreads' five-star rating system isn't really nuanced enough for me, and I've tried a couple of different hacks over the years to make up for the lack of half stars. This year's hack, which I think I'll keep, is to create a Goodreads shelf for the books I think deserve to go on the Year's Best list, and put them on that shelf as I read them. I shelved 19 books this way, so I decided to break my arbitrary pattern of matching the number of books on the list to the calendar year. I was planning to stop doing that in 2021 in any case, and just stick with a top 20, but now my plan is just to have however many top books I have.

I was curious about whether it was because I was getting so many books from Netgalley that the quality was down. Many of the Netgalley books have not yet had their final copyedit, and some of them are not formatted properly for my e-reader, which inevitably drags my enjoyment down no matter how hard I try to ignore it. So I did some analysis. Ten of the 19 Year's Best books were from Netgalley (including two of the five five-stars), as were 24 of the 54 four-star books that didn't make it to Year's Best, but only four of the 15 three-stars. Both of the two-star books were from Netgalley. So out of 94 books, 40 were from Netgalley (fewer than I thought; I would have said at least half), and 34 of those were at least four-star or better. It doesn't seem to be Netgalley dragging down the quality; the opposite, if anything, though both two-star books came from there. I may have felt more obligated to finish them than I otherwise would have, because I had been DNFing a good many books from Netgalley, and you're supposed to review a certain percentage.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked in reverse order (your taste may well vary). There's one nonfiction book this year. I've started reading more nonfiction books, after a long period of reading hardly any, but only one of them made the Year's Best list.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

First, the ones that didn't quite make it to five stars but were very strong four-star books:

19. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho. Barely squeaks in, because I felt it fell apart a bit towards the end, but if you are looking for pitch-perfect Victorian balanced by some modern perspectives, this is the place to go.

18. The Story Peddler, Lindsay A. Franklin. Scores low mainly because it's dystopian, and I dislike dystopian, but it's on the list because it managed to be a dystopian I didn't dislike. A determined heroine was a big part of the appeal.

17. The Iron Codex, David Mack. Dark, but not grimdark, blending post-WWII spies with ceremonial magic in a fresh and ultimately enjoyable combination.

16. Lost Solace, Karl Drinkwater. Space opera adventure, and yes, she's a rebel and a supersoldier, but it does "motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation" so well that I was swept along, despite this not normally being my genre.

15. Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett. The last of the "things I don't usually like done too well to ignore" books on the list, this one gives us another motivated, competent, principled female protagonist in a dynamic situation (all of which I do like, very much), in a setting where uncaring plutocrats grind the faces of the poor (that's the bit I usually don't care for).

14. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire L. Evans. The sole nonfiction book on this year's list reminds us of the forgotten contribution of women to computer programming and the Internet. It's a well-written piece of journalism, and a fascinating story.

13. The Dragon Machine, Ben S. Dobson. The first book in the Magebreakers series made it to last year's list at #8; the second, for me, wasn't quite listworthy, but this third volume deserves its spot. The detective duo has great chemistry, and the half-orc half of it delights once again with her zest for life.

12. The Lord of Stariel, AJ Lancaster. A fresh secondary-world fantasy involving the inheritance of a magical estate. The no-nonsense protagonist was a big part of the appeal.

11. ScalesNicole Conway. A supers story, of sorts, and a YA, which could easily mean "cliche-ridden" but in this case doesn't. Fresh and appealing.

10. Shift, M.A. George. An alternate-worlds story with a heroine driven by love for her brother, providing a great engine to keep the story moving.

9. The Book of Peril, Melissa McShane. This is McShane's third appearance on my top list in as many years (she also had an honorable mention on last year's list, as well as making the #13 spot in both 2016 and 2017), and although the first in this series didn't quite make it onto the list because of a lack of urgency, this one deserves its place. A fine noblebright ending that overturns expectations.

8. Navigating the Stars, Maria V. Snyder. Another YA, and another space opera, which could easily have been by-the-numbers in the hands of a lesser talent. Some fresh worldbuilding, an intriguing out-there premise (involving mysterious vanished aliens who transported Chinese terracotta warriors to other planets), and a delightful protagonist voice.

7. Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. More supers (it is one of my favourite genres), but the story is really about friendship, rivalry, and being noticed or not noticed.

6. A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Some people don't like this because it's not a relentless space opera adventure. I like it because it's warm and humane and all about the relationships.

Now, the five-star books:

5. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, F.C. Yee. Supers again, but this time out of Chinese myth (The Journey to the West), relocated to the present-day San Francisco Bay Area. An enjoyable insight into Chinese-American culture with a strong comedic tone.

4. Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson's Shadows of Self hit #6 on last year's list; this one's higher rank in part reflects a year with not as many very good books, but it's a carefully crafted, complex book with one of the author's trademark out-of-the-box premises.

3. Good Guys, Steven Brust. The author sets himself a considerable writing challenge and defeats it by sheer talent and experience. Morally complex, which is not a euphemism for "full of despicable characters"; instead, it's full of flawed characters in an imperfect situation who are striving to be better people and do the right thing, whatever that is.

2. A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers. Yes, the second book is even better than the first. A tighter cast allows for a deeper immersion in two parallel stories of what it means to be free and a person.

1. Sourdough, Robin Sloan. Someday Robin Sloan will write a perfect book; this isn't it, but it's closer than ever (for me; some people seem to hate it, probably because it involves millennial hipsters). A beautiful reflection on culture (in multiple senses), work and its meaning, and our relationships with food and technology.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures last year for author gender (based on what's stated on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've tended to find myself reading about 50/50 male and female authors overall, but the numbers in my top lists skew female most years. This year was no exception.

Note that I messed up in 2016 and actually only posted a top 15, not a top 16 as I'd intended.


Protagonist gender is even more skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). Out of the 18 books which are fiction, there are two with a male protagonist and no female viewpoint characters (Legion and Scales), both of which do have female characters with agency and importance to the plot. Good Guys and The Iron Codex favor the male protags, but female protags are there. The nonfiction book (Broad Band), of course, is all about women. Twelve of the 19 top-rated books have only female protagonists (several have more than one), and two give more or less equal time to a male and a female protagonist (that's The Dragon Machine and, slightly less equally, Sorcerer to the Crown).

What Makes These Books the Best?

Reading as much as I do, I see a lot of books that don't attempt to go beyond the most well-worn genre conventions, characters, and plots - or, if they attempt it, don't succeed. The books on my top list are not stamped out of a mould. They take what's been done before as a starting point, not a target. They mix and blend genres, sometimes; they surprise, they innovate. Sometimes they even make me like genres I don't usually read, because they show me strongly-motivated, courageous, principled, individualized characters dealing with their compelling situations with determination and skill. Not all of them are without cliche elements or writing faults, but each of them shows strengths that lift them above the pack.

Sturgeon was right: 90% of everything is crap. But the quest for that other 10% takes me to some interesting places. I hope you'll join me on the trip.

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