RogerBW's Blog

2023 in Books 02 January 2024

In 2023 I read 204 books, the most of any year since the pandemic began.

Many of the reviews of those books are forming a backlog in the blog-post queue, and haven't gone up yet—using the master list is probably the easiest way to check.

In among a great many good books and series, five really stood out:

  • Kate Elliott, Furious Heaven
  • Emma Newman, The Split Worlds (especially its conclusion)
  • Melissa Scott, Five-Twelfths of Heaven (re-read)
  • Emily Tesh, Desperate Glory
  • Martha Wells, The Fall of Ile-Rien

and I would be nominating the Tesh for next year's Hugo if I were nominating. (The Elliott I'd quite possibly nominate for series, when the series is complete.)

Nothing else really leapt out at me as amazing this year, though I did enjoy K B Wagers' NeoG trilogy (a bit heavy on the wonderfulness of found family and talking out your problems, but still well worth reading) and her earlier Indranan War series.

I finished David Drake's RCN series with what seemed more of a whimper than a bang; being fair, I think Drake's ill-health (he died on 10 December) forced him to leave it where he'd got to rather than giving him time to craft any sort of conclusion.

I also finished Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Diving Universe series, at least the volumes published to date. Will it ultimately go anywhere and solve its mysteries? I don't know; it's very deliberately slow-moving. But I'd like to read more.

I finished my re-read of Simon Hawke's Time Wars series, alas ending up with some trouble working out what I had found appealing in them back in the day. They have their moments, but really I think the first few are the best; I may have carried on from nostalgia and hoping the series would pick up again, but those memories from the late 1980s aren't readily accessible.

Of this year's Hugo-nominated novels, I've read two (Nona the Ninth and Legends & Lattes), and one (Nettle & Bone, the eventual winner) is on my list for when my chronological reading of T Kingfisher reaches the present day. One (The Daughter of Doctor Moreau) I'll probably read at some point, because I've found Moreno-Garcia often enjoyable though certainly not great; and two (The Kaiju Preservation Society and The Spare Man) I don't plan to read, because I've hated other things by these authors, and since I'm not voting I don't feel any obligation. Even if The Spare Man is Nick and Nora in space.

I read Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library series, which overall was worth it, but to my taste volumes 4-5-6 (out of 8) dragged rather.

In non-SF&F, I finished the novels of Patricia Moyes, and will say one last time that it's an unreasonable injustice that she isn't more widely known among fans of traditional mystery. There are some duds (usually when she's talking about the Evils of Drugs) but most of them are very good indeed.

I also finished the mystery novels I've been able to find from Elizabeth (E. X. in the USA) Ferrars; for my taste she's a bit prone to "hysterical" women, but she definitely has her moments.

I've read pretty much no non-fiction this year. Haven't really been in the mood. The closest was John Biggins' Otto Prohaska series, the misadventures of an Austro-Hungarian naval lieutenant in the Great War, which is fiction but ferociously well-researched.

Books I didn't finish, which therefore didn't get individual reviews:

The Anodyne Necklace, Martha Grimes (1983): I just can't cope with this utterly American England: as the last of a long line of examples, on the first page someone has "a Cadbury bar" in her bag, which probably sounded fine to the American Grimes (as "a Hershey bar" would have been in the US), but to my ear is just wrong. England is not just off the coast of New York; it's a different country. Really I should have stopped after The Old Fox Deceiv'd but I had hoped this would improve.

The Passenger, Lisa Lutz (2016): OK I'm just giving up on Lutz. Yet another woman with a mysterious past, this time with the story starting in the middle as she changes identities more often than her underwear. Lots of did this, did that, made this very poor decision, but the basic problem is that she knows why she's on the run and we don't, which constrains what she can say (also, who is the hypothetical audience for this first-person narrative)? There just isn't any personality left to engage me.

And yet, I would have given anything to be me again, whoever she was.

It's a Charmed Life, Selene Charles (2018): in a fairy-tale world, it's all terribly hard-boiled, and Ariel (The Little Mermaid) is now Elle, a tough cop who works cold cases. But all it has to offer is this one joke in endless variations, plus sexual tension.

Armstrong Station, D. M. Pruden (2020): everything's turned to crap, organised crime owns everyone (explicitly or not), and yeah there are some people trying to do good but it's all too grim and lacking in fun for my taste. (Also, all in present tense (except when it isn't), and one of the several viewpoint characters gets first person narration, which isn't a reason to stop reading in itself but certainly didn't enthuse me.)

The Duke Undone, Joanna Lowell (2021): Victorian romance; she's one of the first female painters to study at the Royal Academy, he's a ducal rake forced to live sober by his father's will. Promising start, but… I'll forgive "tenements" in Victorian London, just barely, if you aren't bragging about your research like Connie Willis, but I couldn't take it seriously after Lowell gave a list of famous queens of the stage that included Cymbeline.

A Very English Murder, Verity Bright (2020): another American tries to write 1920s England, apparently using Downton Abbey as their primary reference. Point one: an educated Englishwoman would not say "around ten fifteen on Saturday" or "You look like it might actually be your idea of fun". Point two: although this lady is meant to be adventurous, having spent years travelling solo in places like the Lut Desert and the Silk Road (during the Great War, given that it's now 1920), she's a complete wet when it comes to any kind of minor physical privation, and she needs her butler even to remind her to consider a list of suspects. Point three: when she gets to the house she's unexpectedly inherited (presumably with the means to keep it up, though that's never mentioned), she's told at once that her deceased uncle has left some papers for her to read. And then everybody including the author completely forgets about them for the rest of the book.

Slow Horses, Mick Herron (2010): intelligence work is relentlessly unglamorous, and if you screw up as a spy, you get sent to the office for pointless and degrading work until you take the hint and resign. Everyone hates everyone else while trying to score points off them. Probably jolly good if you like that sort of thing, and many people do, but I don't care for or about anyone here. (Now a TV series.)

A Lady's Formula For Love, Elizabeth Everett (2021): early Victorian bluestockings secretly make scientific advances, but can't tell anyone, because men. An enjoyable conceit, but my goodness, spray cans in 1842? And the villains are a proto-union. And… it just leaves a bad taste.

The Perfect Ghost, Linda Barnes (2013): I've very much enjoyed Barnes's detective books, but this is trying to be more literary. First-person narration that doesn't let the author know things that the narrator knows, serious agoraphobia that's suddenly not a problem any more, and a gradual build-up to a Big Reveal that I had regarded as a likely option from the beginning. Oh dear. Well, I knew the literary novel style wasn't my thing, but after the quality of Barnes's writing elsewhere I really thought she could make one that would fit my taste.

The Children of Men, P D James (1992): I knew what I was getting into but I'd hoped this might be a decent James to go out on, with something away from the contemporary setting. No, it turns out that it's very much the same underlying motifs, particularly that everyone who isn't like me is Wrong and should be ashamed of it, coupled with the non-SF-reader's contempt for the worldbuilding of SF. Some of her early books had some interesting things to say, but my journey with James ends here.

Her Majesty's Royal Coven, Juno Dawson (2022): the sort of thing that would usually suit me well, but I found it actively un-engaging—from its unquestioning description of male witches as "warlocks" to its lead characters who are much more interested in their personal squabbles than in preventing the actual literal end of the world. I mean, yeah, fine, being a witch as a parallel for other sorts of personal secret is fine (to the extent of "coming out" to one's partner being a thing), but that doesn't fit well with having a whole (secret) government department that employs them. Horribly drab writing doesn't help.

The Flux, Ferrett Steinmetz (2015) ['Mancer 2]: I had mixed but positive feelings on the first book, but this one doubles down the stuff I didn't enjoy to the point that suicide starts to seem like the best available option for all the sympathetic characters. And then, just as I was deciding whether to push on and see if the early "everything is horrible" turned into a later "everything is great", a vomiting agent that gas masks protect you from was described as a "nerve gas", and that was enough to tip me over.

Hid From Our Eyes, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2020) [Fergusson-Van Alstyne 9]: spoiler for my reviews of the previous books that haven't gone up yet, I guess. Alas, even after a seven year gap, this is basically more of the same: soap opera, people behaving badly to either themselves or each other, and this time flashbacks to investigations in 1952 and 1972 as well as multiple streams in the present day of 2006… which in turn makes it very obvious roughly what must have happened, and the author's limited toolbox of character personalities fills in the rest. But the predictability of the mystery story isn't as important as my lack of enthusiasm for the personal stories of unhappiness which are clearly the author's main interest. It's soap-operatic in the sense that there's a constant flow of random disruption, tragedy, dark secrets being revealed, in order to put the characters under even more stress (and thus, I assume, give the reader the pleasure of seeing them show their true colours).

The Appeal, Janice Hallett (2021): the basic gimmick is that of The Documents in the Case, a file of various sorts of material that is all associated with a possible murder, and I'm not going to claim that that should only be done once; but one of the lovely things in that book is that most of the people we hear from are individually quite likeable. Here everyone wears their horridness openly, from the blatant pseudo-charity fraudsters to the hopeless obsessive. It's entirely obvious what will inevitably happen, and then it does. No surprises, no interesting people.

The Outcast Dead, Elly Griffiths (2014) [Ruth Galloway #6]: the little things niggle, like Ruth confidently sexing a skeleton again (this used to be a thing people believed, I was taught it at medical school in 1990, but it's really not considered valid any more as people have started to pay more attention to the range of variation), or she and an historian explaining to each other things they already know perfectly well about (when DI Nelson is right there to be the person who has archaeology explained to him). And there's another man for Ruth to fall for, only for (a) her to dump him because she's still stuck on Nelson or (b) him to turn out to be a murderer, one or the other of which has been the fate of all her previous beaux. But what finally broke my tolerance was the determination of a few minor characters to make what they all know perfectly well are the worst possible decisions, because they are soap-opera people and have no self-control. I enjoyed Griffiths' 2018 The Stranger Diaries and I'll carry on with her non-Ruth books at least for now.

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:42am on 03 January 2024

    It's a shame you didn't enjoy Slow Horses, I thought it was beautifully written and the unintentional hilarity and banter between the characters made me laugh. Oh well, perhaps Gary Oldman's performance leading the TV series might make you look at the stories in a better light?

    Happy New Year my friend.

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