Monday 30 December 2019

Top Books for 2019

This is my sixth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 19 books for 2018my 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.

Last year, I abandoned the attempt to make the number of top books equal the last two digits of the year, which was an arbitrary limitation, and just put as many books on the list as I thought belonged there. Following the same practice again, there are 20 books on this year's list, which means I have now featured 100 books across the six years I've been doing this. Five-star books automatically go on the Best-Of list, and it also includes a selection of four-star books that I think are worthy of mention.

For the second time, I'm awarding a Most Disappointing Book of the Year anti-prize, for a book by an author who, based on their previous history, should have written a much better book. This anti-award went to Andy Weir's Artemis in 2017, and in 2019 it goes to William Gibson's Agency (links are to my reviews). Apart from the massive plot hole right at the end, Artemis might have been an OK book 30 years earlier, when most male authors had no idea of how to write a female viewpoint character; Agency, though, would be tedious in any decade, chooses the viewpoint characters poorly, and gives them, ironically, no agency.

Overall Statistics

I only read 65 books in total in 2019, which is a big drop from previous years, and I'm not sure why that is. I didn't listen to many audiobooks this year, spending my commuting time listening to podcasts instead, which probably contributed. I also started and abandoned a number of books that aren't reflected in the total, but that's nothing new. Maybe I'm just not reading as long at night.

Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal

Despite the lower overall number, I read as many 5-star books this year as in any of the previous five years. Either I'm becoming more generous (probably true) or I'm getting better at choosing books (also probably true). I only got suckered into one two-star book this year, but there were about the usual number of three-star books, 17 (versus 15 last year). A three-star book, for me, is one that I didn't hate, but it had definite flaws. Essentially, I start out at a nominal four stars, and boost it up one if the book is especially good or drop it down one if there's something that hindered my enjoyment. Two stars indicates that, while not lacking any redeeming qualities at all, for me the book was a failure.


Where did I get these books? This year, 34 came from Netgalley: six of the 11 five-star books, 15 of the 36 four-star books (including two that made it to the Best Of), and 13 of the 17 three-star books - so a higher proportion of three-star books than other methods of discovery. Ten came from BookBub: one five-star, five four-star including one Best Of, three three-stars and the sole two-star. Four of the BookBub titles went on my Needs Editing shelf, one on my Seriously Needs Editing shelf, and two on my Well-Edited shelf.

One book (a Best Of) came directly from the author, because I'd reviewed the previous book in the series last year. Three came from the library, and the remainder were either found browsing Amazon, came from Amazon's recommendations, or were continuations of series I'd read previously.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked in ascending order. Your taste may well vary, and on a different day, my rankings might vary too.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

Before I start the list proper, I will mention one that missed the list, even though all the previous books in the series made it on there. Sands of Memory (Company of Strangers, book 5) by Melissa McShane felt a bit by-the-numbers, though it was still good. Melissa McShane is a fixture on my best-of lists, with one book on the list in each of 2016, 2017 (when she also got an honorable mention), and 2018; this year, she has an impressive five books out of the 20, including three five-star entries.

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

20. Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman. I listened to the audiobook while driving, which made it easier to leave it running than stop it; if I'd been reading the text, I might have found the slow pace harder to cope with. Still, some thoughtful moments, and a gradual but powerful build to a revelation that puts the rest of the book into a different perspective.

19. Royal Rescue, A. Alex Logan. Provides insight into the experience of being asexual, with mostly authentic-feeling characters who are determined to do the right thing.

18. The Dragon's Banker, Scott Warren. Pulls off the difficult feat of making merchant banking interesting, and again features a protagonist who wants to do what's right.

17. Company of Strangers, Melissa McShane. The first of an excellent D&D-ish series, not as tense as some of the later ones, but very sound writing. The almost flawless editing definitely helps to boost this author's rankings for me.

16. Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar, Lawrence Watt-Evans. Wizards, a protagonist who wants to do the right thing, mystery, twue wuv - I was always going to like this one.

15. The Masked City, Genevieve Cogman. A strong continuation to the Invisible Library series, with plenty of action and a level-headed, capable protagonist.

14. The Immortal Conquistador, Carrie Vaughn. Another protagonist determined to do the right thing even though, in this case, he's a vampire (turned against his will). Makes me want to return to the main series of which it's a self-contained side story.

13. Sidekicks, Arthur Mayor. Supers done right, with a strong conflict between doing the right thing and doing the sensible thing that looks for a long time like it could go either way.

12. Mortal Rites (Company of Strangers, Book 3), Melissa McShane. The undead done well, a group of protagonists with a strong bond and a good ability to work together, and the usual sound writing.

Now, the five-star books:

11. The Philosopher's War, Tom Miller. Sequel to my #1 book of 2017; its lower ranking mainly reflects my lack of enthusiasm for reading a book set in World War I. Protagonist sacrifices in order to do the right thing.

10. Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey. Urban fantasy noir, richly psychological, and with a compelling mystery; magic school will never be quite the same after this.

9. Chasing Solace, Karl Drinkwater. Sequel to the #16 book on the 2018 list; the trappings of horror, but it still worked for me, a resolute non-horror reader.

8. This is How You Lose the Time War, Amar El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The characters are not admirable, but their relationship is beautifully and skillfully depicted, with great imagination.

7. The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie. Hamlet, but very much not as we know it, with a twist that seriously messed with my head.

6. The View from Castle Always, Melissa McShane. I love a magical-castle (or magical-house) story, and this is a good one, with a fine romance woven through the mystery.

5. Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. Determined, capable protagonists set out to bring about good outcomes for everyone in what seems like an impossible situation, and their courage and creativity are up to the challenge.

4. Shifting Loyalties (Company of Strangers, Book 4), Melissa McShane. Raises the tension, piling on complications for the characters, which produces a cracking story.

3. Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This author made #11 in 2017 with The Beautiful Ones, and this book pulls off the same difficult feat of a truly glorious ending.

2. The Smoke-Scented Girl, Melissa McShane. If every romance/adventure was like this, I'd read little else. Wonderful protagonist, excellently characterized.

1. Turning Darkness Into Light, Marie Brennan. A lovely piece of writing, integrating scholarship, political maneuverings, and the best handling I've ever seen of the complicated feelings left over after a failed relationship.

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, though I think that's slowly changing; by my count, I read 41 female authors across 65 books in 2019 (two of whom had male co-authors). The numbers in my top lists skew female most years, though, including this one.

I believe A. Alex Logan is nonbinary, so I've added a column this year. One book had a male and a female author, so the total is 21 for the 20 books; I've counted Melissa McShane each of the five times that she appears on the list.


Protagonist gender is even more skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). There are 15 female protagonists (Spinning Silver has three and This is How You Lose the Time War has two), and seven male protagonists; for spoilerific reasons, I'm not counting the (trans male) main character of The Raven Tower as a protagonist, and the viewpoint character in that book is non-gendered. Most of the books with male protagonists also have prominent female characters with arcs and importance to the plot; The Immortal Conquistador is the book of which this is least true, and it's a side-story to a series with a female main character. 

What Makes These Books the Best?

As I read through my list, I was struck by how strongly I'm gravitating at the moment towards admirable protagonists who struggle against the odds to do the right thing for the benefit of others (otherwise known as "noblebright"). At least 16 of the 20 can be described this way. They're not, generally, the blacksmith's apprentice who is secretly the prince, either; most of them are ordinary people (possibly with extraordinary talents) who have to step up to meet a challenge. The most prominent exceptions to this type of admirable protagonist are the pair in This is How You Lose the Time War, which managed to win me over despite, rather than because of, what kind of people they were.

It's been a good year for books, and even though I've read less, I seem to have read just as many really good books (and just as many just-OK books, unfortunately). Join me again next year.

Friday 20 December 2019

Review: Agency

Agency Agency by William Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I never thought I would use the phrase "tedious William Gibson novel," but apparently this is the version of the world we now live in.

This tedious William Gibson novel is clearly a William Gibson novel: it has the effortless prose, the vivid (if occasionally inaccurate) imagery, the geek-culture namedrops, the characters who are outsiders to power and the mainstream. What it doesn't have much of is a plot, and what the characters don't have much of, by irony that may or may not be unconscious, is agency. They do almost nothing that has any impact on anything. In fact, they do almost nothing, and it's narrated at great length.

The author establishes a strict alternation between two viewpoint characters: Verity, in a version of 2017 California where the US election of 2016 and the Brexit vote went the other way, and Netherton, in a post-apocalyptic future descended, quite possibly, from our version of the timeline. This strict alternation regardless of what's going on and who has the most at stake at the time, and this choice of viewpoint characters, soon begin to work against the success of the book.

Both viewpoint characters are essentially passive. Verity spends most of the book as a passenger, being moved around to escape from a corrupt corporation who hired her at the start of the novel. It's never really clear to me why anyone involves Netherton in events, rather than just going direct; he's a go-between and a middleman and an observer, and the one effective thing he does (fighting off a random encounter that has no lead-up and no follow-through) is entirely by accident. Many of the chapters, particularly the Netherton ones, consist of someone, usually Netherton, repeating something we have just been shown in the previous chapter to someone else who wasn't observing at the time. (Not very far into the book, the two viewpoints connect, by a technological means of communication that's never explained in any depth, but looks to the users like VR.)

The beginning is promising. Verity is hired by that dodgy corporation because of her reputation as an "app whisperer" to do vague things with a new alpha build, an advanced AI called Eunice. Eunice is templated on a feisty, fiercely intelligent and capable African-American woman, and is by far the most interesting character in the book; after (view spoiler) (relatively early on), the novel immediately bogs down in exposition, pipe-laying, long descriptions of logistics (she sat here, she put her bag there, she looked at this), and people explaining things to other people that we've just been shown in the previous chapter. Once (view spoiler), the book wraps up rapidly, but without much involvement of the carefully-gathered group of people who are supposedly the protagonists; they have spend all their time while the world was threatened with nuclear disaster doing mostly mundane or evil-corporation-avoidance-related things, rather than working on anything to do with the threat, and (view spoiler).

I got the feeling partway through that the excessive number of secondary characters with backstories that didn't seem relevant to the current story were left over from a previous novel, and indeed it seems this is a sequel to The Peripheral. I was surprised to discover, looking at the front of the book where they are listed, that I'd missed three novels by Gibson since the last one I read, so I don't know if the mediocre dullness of this one is a new development or part of a trend. Since I got a pre-release version from Netgalley, I also don't know if the couple of glitches (such as placing jungle-dwelling orangutans on the savanna) will be fixed before publication; they may be. What I don't think can be fixed is the overnarration of mundane logistics that stands where a plot would normally go, or the limp and ineffectual puppets that are the viewpoint characters.

Accordingly, I'm awarding this my non-prize for Most Disappointing Novel Read in 2019.

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Friday 13 December 2019

Review: Sands of Memory

Sands of Memory Sands of Memory by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While not up to the previous book's level of tension, a decent, enjoyable adventure.

It's replete with Arabian Nights tropes, so not necessarily a super-original setting either.

The team accidentally unleash bad consequences on other people and escape without permanent damage themselves - in fact, in a better state than they start out in. So, also not my favourite from a moral-consequences standpoint.

In fact, it had enough flaws that I'm leaving it off my Best of the Year list, something I seldom do with a Melissa McShane book. That's not to say it was bad, just that I usually like her books a lot more than I liked this particular one. I don't regret buying it, but I hope the next one brings back the full level of tension (despite the team's now awesome power levels).

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Thursday 12 December 2019

Review: The Immortal Conquistador

The Immortal Conquistador The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a long-time fan of the Kitty Norville series, though I have lost touch with it a bit lately, so when this side-story came up on Netgalley I requested the chance to read and review it. Thanks to the publisher for granting the request.

Here we get the full backstory of Rick, the 500-year-old vampire and decent guy who's one of Kitty's allies. Turned against his will by an acquaintance who knew him back when they were both on Coronado's unsuccessful expedition to find the Cities of Gold in Mexico, Rick is determined to be bad at vampiring; he has friends, not victims, and only uses his powers to protect people.

Naturally, this doesn't come easily, but it helps that he spends the first hundred years in complete isolation from other vampires, so nobody tells him how he's supposed to do it. Even in the present day, there's a lot he doesn't know, and he's still determined to be a good man (and a devout Catholic) insofar as that's possible for someone like him.

Carrie Vaughn is an excellent storyteller - her short stories are highly skilled, even though she's probably primarily known as a novelist, and in part this book is what used to be called a "fixup," joining several short stories together into a longer, multi-part narrative. The frame story isn't just a frame, though, but expands into something more.

The very early part, when Rick is turned, is darker and more horrific than I usually prefer, but it sets up a contrast that the author uses well. The essential goodness of a character who fights against the evil imposed on him to remain, in important ways, himself shines through powerfully throughout.

Although I've read a number of the Kitty Norville books, you could read this book without having done so and be fully oriented; the events of those books are only referred to briefly, some of the many adventures that Rick has had over his long life, and Rick himself is at the heart of the story. He's an appealing protagonist, and I enjoyed reading this. Perhaps I'll go back and read some more of the main series.

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Review: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Novik is doing some wonderful stuff lately. I was starting to feel that the flaws in her Temeraire series were outweighing the strengths, and then she started writing standalone fantasy novels like this, and like the excellent Uprooted.

It's a twist on the Rumpelstiltskin story, but it isn't at all closely constrained by its source material. There are at least three protagonists and several more viewpoint characters (one of whom was a bit of a surprise, and a signal, for me, that that particular character might have a shot at redemption, unlikely as that seemed); the main three are all capable young women who are treated, by their culture and by the men who surround them, as far less than they actually are. They decisively prove that underestimation to be wrong.

One is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, and I'll admit that I set the book aside for a while and read other things because I was worried about which particular other shoes would drop for a Jewish family in an analog of Eastern Europe in what seems like the 18th or 19th century.

(view spoiler)

With those caveats, I found the story engaging, the characters powerful, the sense of tension and the stakes compelling, and the plot well-paced. It's not every author who can pull off a book with this many viewpoints and with three or four major plot threads closely intertwined, but Naomi Novik is definitely one who can.

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