The Absolutely Subjective Best Books of Part of the Decade for Me
A list of no value to anyone else
Like everyone else, I started a listicle in January 2020 about the best whatnot of the previous ten years. And, like most everyone else, I was then side-tracked by the apocalypse. It happens.
I revisited the draft to see if there was anything useful in there. There wasn’t. But it did give me an idea. Rather than try to come up with an 'objective’ list of great books, and convince you to read them, why don’t I do the reverse?
In this case, a purely subjective ‘best of’ list, measuring the books that had the most impact on me. And not necessarily because of the text, but as an object, an experience, a moment, or simply historical coincidence. A ‘best of’ list that is entirely personal - and therefore completely useless to anyone else.
The task was self-indulgent and very, very comforting.
Speaking of the dark half! The Outcast Hours is a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards (as is one of the short stories within, Genevieve Valentine’s “Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?”). Congratulations to all the contributors to this delightfully macabre anthology! Mahvesh and I are delighted.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
I started tracking my reading on Goodreads in 2011.
I have literally one book added for 2010: Zoo City. Zoo City was a pivotal moment for me, and my relationship with ‘genre fiction’ (for the uninitiated, that’s how people talk about science fiction and fantasy when they’re too nervous to say ‘geek stuff’). It is imaginative and entertaining and all those nice things, but it is also fiercely contemporary.
Zoo City, unlike the gold-plated SF of my youth, was a book that felt of 2010, not of a historical, Cold War era. This wasn’t inherited wonder, it was science fiction for me; now.
Zoo City is also how I met Lauren Beukes. She is outgoing and adventurous and progressive, and someone who cultivates and actively promotes talent in others. Lauren uses her own (hard-earned) success as a platform to create opportunities for others.
In 2010, I was a rather naive fan, looking to get more involved. I could not have stumbled on a better role model as to how authors, or community members, should behave. I’ve not always lived up to that standard, but at least I know what it is.
All because I really liked Zoo City.
Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall
In 2011, ‘my’ first book came out - an anthology that Anne and I edited on a whim. A whim that turned into my side-hustle and her career. Sometimes things do work the way they should.
[As far as the rules of the listicle goes: including ‘my’ books would fit the definition, but that’s pretty distasteful. Like listing all your favourite meats, and including your pets. Technically correct, but still pretty gross.]
When Anne and I decided to start a small press and Make a Book, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Enthusiasm is great, but, at some point, you need to, well, Make Book. Anne was the talented editor from the get-go (see above). She did the tricky creative and editorial work, while I taught myself the functional bits: I learned about typography and ISBN numbers and contracts.
Thanks to Birdsall, I learned all the various bits and pieces of design that go into making a book look like a book. Most of them are entirely invisible, but their collective impact is incredibly important to the experience of a book. I learned that a book, as an object, is greater than the sum of its words. It taught me a new appreciation for books as art and artefacts.
I’m not sure I learned any of those lessons well, but I learned them all enough. And somethings that’s all you need to keep moving.
Condominium by John D MacDonald
JDM has been my constant companion since I found a box of Travis McGee novels for a dime each outside of a Phoenix gas station. Those silly, wonderful, problematic, thoughtful novels are, in many ways, at the core of my reading. From the Travis McGee novels, I spun into a whole world of noir authors and paperback originals and musty publishers, all of whom have filled my shelves and my hours.
In 2012, I was trying to complete a JDM collection, and I spent my year tracking down and reading his many, many standalone novels. Condominium is his longest book, and his most ‘serious’. It is disaster fiction - about a condo complex in Florida, facing the chaos of a hurricane.
Unlike most disaster fiction, JDM isn’t that fussed about the disaster itself. The hurricane is inevitable, of course, but JDM focuses on the human elements that make its evitability so catastrophic. He focuses on the people - bringing to life the sociological, governmental, and cultural networks, and explaining how and why they failed. It is, to use one of the hot buzzwords of my field, about ‘resilience’, or the lack thereof.
I’m not sure it is JDM’s best novel: despite the size and stature, it lacks tension. The late-entering protagonist is flat-out boring, and the romance, such as it is, is horribly contrived. But the scope allows MacDonald to explore the many nuanced and trivial interconnections within the pocket-sized world he builds. It is a novel about systems, and their failure, and utterly fascinating for it.
It isn’t too much to say that it is a book that showed me a different way of looking about things - a sense of the importance of interconnections and networks, rather than simply trying to spot the protagonist in any situation. Yes, it is pulpy disaster fiction, but it is also a fantastic introduction to strategic planning.
The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit
Our friends had a copy of this book, and whenever we visited, I used to disappear into their kitchen and thumb through it. I’m a great guest. Eventually I bought my own copy, making it the first cookbook I’d ever purchased.
And what a cookbook it is. The Flavour Thesaurus has about three recipes in it, two of which are uncookable by mortals. But if you’re looking for instructions - for didactic rules on making a proper dish - you’re looking in the wrong place. This is a collection of combinations (strange, wonderful, and not always successful) and inspirations. It is liberally filled with anecdotes, biographical snippets, travel notes, and stories of meals great and terrible. This is permission to cook.
I realised cooking was no longer the route memorisation of recipes: cooking is about trying things, being a bit bonkers, and not being afraid of failure. If you want to start with a pre-approved combination, go for it! If not, go for that too! Cooking is about fun and taste and experimentation and… well, pure joy. It isn’t a chore. I learned to do the dishes.
Anne has put up with a lot of terrible meals from me, but this book has made me a much happier person.
[This book directly inspired the best communications strategy I ever wrote. But I’ll save that for another day.]
Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James
Desperate Duchesses is the first volume of a lengthy series. There’s a core story arc, which is the love triangle between Jemma, Beaumont (her estranged husband) and Villiers (a saucy Valmont type). There’s a rivalry, some politics, a lot of heated gazes, and oddly enough, a great deal of chess.
While the three of them play with their pieces (fnar) in the background, the bulk of the series, like most romances, bounces between ‘secondary’ pairings. Each book picks a a couple, gives them a taste of adventure, gets them laid (thoroughly) and, eventually, marries them off.
Duchesses wasn’t my first Regency romance - other 2014 contenders include my first Heyer and some Courtney Milan - but this was the series that did it for me. Eloisa James combines, in perfect harmony, humour and drama, world-building and characterisation, sex and tension. There’s attention to detail, but never the burden of it - a good Regency romance is almost always anachronistic. And the hop-skip-jump series mechanic is a wonderful way of retaining the best of a ‘cinematic’ world without milking it dry.
Which is all very nice, but why are our scandalous duchesses important to me?
First, there’s the eye-opening surprise that comes with entering any cultural category for the first time. Whether that’s your first film noir, your first pantomime, or your film test match. All the tropes and tricks are new. At the time, I wrote up my experience of the encounter in a fun, if binary, fashion: Five Things in Historical Romance That I Wantonly Desire to See in Epic Fantasy. But every culture - fandom, whatever - has its own language, community, and social norms. It has the stuff it does well - and badly - and its own perspective on the world. Visiting a different bubble can be educational.
Second, Eloisa James. She has a Masters from Oxford and a PhD from Yale. She lectures on Shakespeare at Fordham, and has a genuinely phenomenal academic career. She also writes a lot of novels about horny nobility. Avoiding authorial intent and all that: she seems like a lot of fun, and I’ve always gravitated towards authors (Ed McBain, John D MacDonald, Robert Chambers) who seem to make conscious decisions about their literary careers that result in immense success despite eschewing more traditional definitions of ‘greatness’. You go, EJ.
Third, romance is the biggest category of fiction. Adult colouring books and ‘David Walliams’ and all that, but romance is what props up the publishing world. On average, Romance readers read far more than other readers - often hundreds of books each year. And the market is cut-throat. Amazon metadata precision, bundling tactics, cover design hacks - the innovations (and scandals) come from romance, because that’s where the action is. Your average bookstore can’t keep up with their volume, and can’t compete on price - making it a truly digital-first wing of the sector. (Which is why, in turn, the publishing industry repays Romance readers by pretending their books don’t matter. Charming.) It isn’t that romance readers don’t appreciate quality, it is that they’re reading in such volume that they’ve successfully commoditised their culture. It is amazing to behold.
I’m not sure anyone can pretend to know about - or care about - publishing without knowing about - or caring about - romance.
Fourth, a bit like The Flavour Thesaurus, it was really nice to get over myself and try something new. And be rewarded for doing so: romance books are now a staple of my fictional diet. ‘Dude gets weird stares buying a Courtney Milan’ is about the most privileged experience of discomfort I could think of, but even then, it is eye-opening to think about the social, cultural, and algorithmic barriers that stood in my way. And, of course, my own preconceptions.
The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Nostalgia is seductive. The bit of your brain that processes memories also gives you a little happy boost. Our mind actually rewards us for thinking about the past.
It doesn’t even have to be a real memory to give you your fix. Thinking about an imagined past can have the same impact. False memories of the ‘good ol’ days’ are therefore self-perpetuating. They are rose-tinted glasses that reward us every time we put them on.
The Dragonlance Chronicles are my sunlit uplands. As a kid, I read these gooey, pulpy fantasies until the covers, quite literally, fell off. I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of every minor character. I filled spiral notebooks with my fan-fiction. I knew its geography, politics, society, and constellations. I knew its world better than I understood my own. And liked it more too.
Mahvesh Murad and I agreed to do a full ‘re-read’ for Tor.com. A chapter by chapter analysis of all three books of this classic series. It took 75,000 words, and… it was a challenge. Very few childhood reads hold up to adult scrutiny, and my rose-tinted glasses were pretty badly shattered in the attempt. It was an 18-month lesson in the dangers of overindulgence.
I learned a lot about process and collaboration. Mahvesh and I had edited together, but co-writing an article/week for sixty weeks is a different beast. We’re both alive, so that’s promising.
I learned how to think critically about what I love (or used to love). The temptation with a scenario like this is to give in to reactance: to blindly defend the books or to savage them. Again, reviewing wasn’t a new thing, but to review - endlessly - the same books over and over again is a different challenge. It is about maintaining moderation, and trying to find interesting hooks over and over again.
Most importantly, we both had a lot of fun. We got Kamila Shamsie to write a guest post (and Anne). We interviewed ourselves. We snuck Taylor Swift lyrics into every single one of the sixty-odd entries.
The ‘cure’ for nostalgia - researchers suggest - is more engagement with historical reality. In this case, engaging with the reality absolutely annihilated my existing nostalgia, but then replaced it with a new form. I still love the Dragonlance Chronicles, but my rosy memories are of revisiting them, not my childhood.
That’s pretty encouraging. It would be comforting if my relationship with these books - with any of the books on this list, or on my shelf - never changed. But that’s impossible - the world is changing, I’m changing; every read and re-read will be a new experience. But if I can forge a new connection with a particularly ludicrous childhood totem, it means that nothing is ever truly lost.
As a reward for making it this far - some links that aren’t all about me:
Speaking of niche cultural communities: r/fantasy - the subreddit for the discussion of fantasy literature - is about to pass one million subscribers.
The complex relationship between self-help books and (real) social science.
An interactive Western by Stark Holborn.
Vittles on the ‘lunch break’. Sweeping and fascinating.
Next up. Probably Westerns?