Previous reading recommendations
Reviews British Women Writers 1910-60s: the 'middlebrows' Recent Recommended Reading

Fiction (mostly)

Melina Marchetta's Lumatere Chronicles: Finnikin of the Rock (2010), Froi of the Exiles (2012), Quintana of Charyn (2013) - these really got better over the course of the trilogy. Gritty but not gratuitously so, with complex characters and intricate moral and political dilemmas, and characters who undergo development.

Greer Gilman's Cry Murder! in a Small Voice (2013): a novella in which Ben Jonson is drawn into the murder of a boy player. Brilliant use of language, and a real sense of period ideas and constraints.

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013). This was charming, and the sort of science fiction that seems to have been sadly lacking for some decades now, taking me back to the days of the earlier Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, etc.

Anne Lyle The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams (both 2012). Alternate history fantasy, set in an approximation to the Elizabethan period but with significant twists, would not be something I'd automatically go for, but these are very good.

Sherwood Smith's Banner of the Damned (2012). Sherwood Smith surpasses herself in this one, set in the future of the events in the Inda sequence. Wonderfully compelling reading, yet also points where I just wanted it not to stop. Also by Smith in rather different register, Danse de la Folie (2012), a delightful Regency Romance (not my usual reading grounds) with a light touch.

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (2012) - a wonderful and very original fantasy about the power of learning and language and cultural difference and obligation, beautifully written

Diane Duane, The Big Meow (Feline Wizards 3) (2011) - not the easiest of things to get hold of, and possibly still only available as ebook? - but very good, possibly the strongest yet in this sequence

Kameron Hurley, the Bel Dame Apocrypha, God's War (2011), Infidel (2011), Rapture (2012). Grim and gritty, in fact at points downright gruesome (warnings for people who have issues with insects and creepy-crawlies, which are central to the technologies of this future society), but nonetheless these don't come over as gratuitous, in this strong and compelling trilogy which eschews easy answers and simple trajectories.

Aliette de Bodard, On a Red Station, Drifting (2013), a wonderful novella, depicting a subtle relationship between two women in tense circumstances and in a well-depicted future which gets away from the stock Euro-centric cliches. As with the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the background to the whole situation is most men being at the war front and women having to keep everything else going. Also by de Bodard, Obsidian and Blood (2012) (Omnibus edition of the Acatl novels Servant of the Underworld, 2010, Harbinger of the Storm, 2011,and Master of the House of Darts, 2011). Intriguing noir fantasy thrillers in a setting in which the supernatural aspects of Aztec belief are real, and intricately involved in the mysteries the protagonist is trying to solve.

Laura Antoniou's The Killer Wore Leather: An S/M Mystery (2013), an extremely fun read about murder at a Leather convention.

Livia Day (Tansey Rayner Roberts), A Trifle Dead (2013). Very enjoyable crime mystery set in Hobart, Tasmania, towards the cosy end of the spectrum perhaps, but not twee.

Continuations of series which keep up the standard: two Margaret Marons, Christmas Mourning and Three-Day Town (return of Sigrid Harald as a supporting character!); Dana Stabenow, Though Not Dead; Marcia Muller, City of Whispers; Barbara Hambly's latest Benjamin January mystery, Good Man Friday

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo (2012). Lovely, lovely book of a young woman exploring life in 1920s London, I just wished it had been longer.

Gail Godwin, Flora (2013): very good, if not quite as amazing as Unfinished Desires

Elizabeth Taylor, The Sleeping Beauty (1953): as with so many of Taylor's works, deals with matters that could so easily turn sensational or melodramatic, but in fact don't, but just hover

Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire (2013). I wasn't sure how she could follow Code Name Verity, but this was amazing. It doesn't have the intricacy of CNV, but it's still powerful and compelling, if somewhat harrowing

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, The Brimming Cup (1921). What a very interesting writer she is.

Ankaret Wells, Firebrand (2012). This was just so good. It takes some stock tropes and properties, inverts and subverts them in witty and wonderful prose and a brilliantly imagined setting.

Also stunning and doing subversive things within the fantasy genre, Roz Kaveney's Rituals (2012) is wonderful, my only cavil being that it is the beginning of a series, for the rest of which I can hardly wait.

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity (2012): an outstanding story of female friendship in the context of World War II, extreme experiences and new opportunities for women, told with brilliant narrative complexity

Hooray for Project Gutenberg. Kathleen Thompson Norris, Saturday's Child (1914) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, The Bent Twig (1915) were both compelling female bildungsromans. Even if they ended with marriage, it's marriage not as an end but a beginning of new work: both are very much about the importance of work even if they are also about the pleasures and temptations of beauty and art. Also, interesting political stance against wealth rather than a modest competence.

Dawn Powell, Whither (1925). Her first novel swerves into a somewhat conventionally happy ending, but its depiction of life in a boarding-house full of ambitious young women intending to achieve their destiny in New York, is already richly provided with incisive observations.

A couple of new and very contrasting works by Joolz Denby. Wild Thing (2012) is very much in her usual gothic-realist mode and as grimly excellent as ever, but The Curious Mystery Of Miss Lydia Larkin And The Widow Marvell (2012) takes an entirely different and wholly unexpected tack and is utterly charming.

Beth Bernobich, Queen's Hunt (2012): one anxiously awaits next part of the story. Other series which are keeping up the good work and going strong with the latest entries: Elizabeth Moon, Echoes of Betrayal, Elizabeth Bear, ad eternam, Amanda Downum, The Kingdoms of Dust, Walter Jon Williams, The Fourth Wall, Mercedes Lackey, Beauty and the Werewolf, Simon R Green, For Heaven's Eyes Only, Barbara Hambly, The Magistrates of Hell. Jacqueline Carey's Saints Astray (2012), sequel to Santa Olivia did interesting and unexpected things

Re-reading after many years of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End (1920s), which remains brilliant - the narrative method is awe-inspiringly risk-taking - in spite of the annoyingness of the central character and class and nationality attitudes which one suspects were also Ford's.

2 older works of YA fiction, both fantasy but very different in many ways, not merely their assumed political positions: Naomi Mitchison's The Big House (1950), and Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse (1946), both very good, with female characters who have agency and behave in period-appropriate ways.

Edward St Aubyn's At Last (2011) concludes, probably, the Melrose sequence. It's not perhaps quite as compelling as the earlier episodes, but still pretty good, and falls into that class of things which should be massively depressing yet are rendered quite exhilarating by the execution.

L Timmel Duchamp, Never at Home (2011): short stories and novellas around the theme of change and transformation. Very good, in their rather disturbing way.

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011) - paranormal London is becoming quite a subgenre. This one really worked rather well. And so did the sequels, Moon over Soho (2011) and Whispers Under Ground (2012)

Recent crime thrillers and fiction enjoyed, all strong new entries in ongoing series: Sara Paretsky, Breakdown (2012); J D Robb, New York to Dallas (2011); Jane Haddam, Blood in the Water (2012)

Sarah Monette, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves (2011) - short stories with a flavour of horror: this is not usually my kind of thing, but this was one of my Best Books of 2011. She writes incredibly well. I also greatly enjoyed her limited edition chapbook of uncollected Kyle Murchison Booth stories, Unnatural Creatures (2011).

Elizabeth Bear, Range of Ghosts (2012) I was fortunate enough to score an advance copy of this - first volume in a new fantasy trilogy - an excitingly fresh setting, intriguing characters. Anxiously awaiting the next installment.

In the wake of reading The Little Women Letters, which I discussed earlier. I have been rediscovering Gabrielle Donnelly: re-read Holy Mother (1987), Faulty Ground (1990) and read two intervening novels of hers I hadn't encountered before, All Done With Mirrors (1991) and The Girl in the Photograph (1997). She is very, very good: women's fiction but far from chicklit - although romance features it's seldom entirely happy or leading to permanence, the leads tend to be initially unsympathetic and maybe a bit too sorted. Excellent on relationships between women.

Am finally getting into Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949) and In a Summer Season (1961). Also good on women's friendships. Found Angel (1957), a bit off her usual track, being a historical novel about a Ouida/Marie Corelli-type Victorian novelist of massive self-delusion about her artistic powers, grim but good.

Marcia Muller, Coming Back (2010). Muller does not keep her series characters static and unchanging (unlike some), though this means putting them through some extreme experiences (Sharon McCone is still recovering from severe neurological damage in this one). Maintains the general standard.

Barbara Hamilton (pseud of Barbara Hambly), Sup with the Devil (2011) There are series of hers I like better but this one will do to be getting along with (and is about a historical time and place - immediately pre-Revolutionary New England - about which I know very little apart from vague recollections of reading Johnny Tremaine in my youth).

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April (1922) - delightful and charming and somehow manages to avoid being twee (which Elizabeth and Her German Garden didn't, really)

Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters (2011) - the invocation of Little Women, plus the incorporation of found letters of the March family, could have been a recipe for disaster, but in fact this was a delight, and the epistolary voice in the letters just about right. I think this is the same Gabrielle Donnelly who published a couple of books about 20 years or so ago that I liked, but doesn't seem to have done much in the interim.

Barbara Hambly, Ran Away (2011) - the latest Benjamin January, as always excellent.

Walter John Williams, Deep State (2011) - 'near-future sf-inflected action thriller' is not usually a genre I go for but this, if perhaps not quite as page-turningly gripping as This Is Not A Game, was still pretty compelling reading.

Gulped down in quick succession, four noir thrillers by Megan Abbott where the focus was very much on female-female relationships, not necessarily benign, but very powerful: Queenpin (2007), Die a Little (2005), Bury Me Deep (2009), and The Song Is You (2007). Was just slightly less taken by her most recent work in somewhat different mode, The End of Everything(2011)

I found Laurie R King's The Language of Bees (2009) uncharacteristically slow and even clunky, but the sequel/second half of long novel split in two, The God of the Hive (2010) was the helter-skelter unwinding of the plot ratcheted up in the first half.

Elizabeth Bear, Seven for a Secret (2009) and The White City (2011) - two linked novellas set in the same alternate world as New Amsterdam (2008), plus the limited edition chapbook The Tricks of London (2009); also enjoyed A Tempering of Men (2011), by Bear and Sarah Monette, the sequel to A Companion to Wolves (2007) and taking the story in a rather different direction

Jo Walton, Among Others (2011), which has been widely and with justice praised to the skies - it seems practically supererogatory to say anything further, but it's really, really good. Walton is very much not one of those authors who writes the same book over and over again - every beginning is a new departure - but the standard never flags. The blend of the fantastic with very specific realism of time and place in this one is admirably judged, and it is also a paean to the value of reading and the bookish life. Also, how few fantasies deal with that aftermath/tidying up/back to reality instead of thinking that the climax of some struggle is the end (I did like that the last line was a shout-out to a book which is more or less about that - damage limitation after epic upheavals. Though, really, it does not matter too much is the reader has not read the actual books that are name-checked throughout).

Other recommended recent works in the fantasy/sf field Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy (2010). Short, but great fun, and tangentially related to her 'Company' series. Sarah Monette, Unnatural Creatures (2011). Limited edition chapbook of 4 previously uncollected Kyle Murchison Booth (of The Bone Key collection, previously recommended) stories. Barbara Hambly, Blood Maidens (2010) Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo (2010), lovely narrative voice and style even if the story is slight. Catherynne M Valente, Deathless (2011), very impressive use of Russian legend/history; Amanda Downum, The Bone Palace (2011); Victoria Janssen, The Duke and the Pirate Queen (2010). published as erotica but works well as a fantasy adventure, and the erotic elements are not gratuitous

Recent and worthwhile entries into ongoing crime fiction series: Marcia Muller, Locked In (2009), a collection of J D Robb novellas, Three in Death (2008) and Indulgence in Death (2010), Margaret Maron, Sand Sharks (2009). Dana Stabenow, A Night Too Dark (2010), Barbara Hambly, The Shirt on His Back (2011); Jane Haddam, Wanting Sheila Dead (2010); John Maddox Roberts, SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion: A Mystery (2010); David Wishart, Bodies Politic (2010); Joanne Dobson, Death without Tenure (2010)

Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires (2010) - wonderful novel of events and relationships resonating over the years, centring on a convent school, with all sorts of complex female relationships interestingly done, as well as hints and echoes of other girls-school or convent books. Highly recommended.

Ankaret Wells' Books of Requite 1 & 2, The Maker's Mask and The Hawkwood War (2010): a wonderful discovery, with so many of the elements I love and have seen too seldom in sf of recent years. Vivid setting, involving remnants of an older technology some characters can use but few people understand; fascinating well-drawn characters including female characters who demonstrate agency rather than being decorative objects or prizes; moral ambiguity; complexities of gender and sexuality; political intrigue; tense family dynamics; secret orders influencing events; swashbuckling; witty exchanges; plus vigorous onward narrative drive and cliffhanging suspense and general unputdownability. Lovely.

Picked up a number of rather random Ngaio Marshes in a 2 for 99p deal in the local Oxfam bookshop, and was agreeably impressed, especially with Death in White Tie (1938) and Vintage Murder (1941)

Barbara Hamilton (pseud of Barbara Hambly), A Marked Man (2010), her second Abigail Adams mystery, I think perhaps even better than the first, The Ninth Daughter

Katharine Beutner, Alcestis (2010). This was very good: also interesting as bringing back the supernatural and actual deities as characters into a novel based on Greek myth, unlike the school of Graves, Renault, Treece, etc, with their anthropologically/archaeologically-inflected gritty-realist-style readings of myth, and only faint and intermittent hints of the supernatural/numinous.

Johanna Sinisalo, Troll: A Love Story (aka Not Before Sundown) (2003), Creepy, atmospheric, compelling.

Kage Baker, The House of the Stag (2008). How to use familiar fantasy tropes and yet make them fresh and readable.

Caroline Stevermer, Magic Below Stairs (2010). Aimed at middle grade readers, set in the world in which Sorcery and Cecelia and it sequels took place. Utterly charming, and brings in a lovely new viewpoint.

Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild), Peter and Paul (1940). Reliably charming light romance, with admittedly predictable actual romance plot, reissued by Greyladies. As before, the strength lies in the depiction of a working milieu, in this case, an exclusive dress shop, and relationships between women in that milieu.

Jane Smiley, Private Life (2010). Good as ever, but a rather grim study of a bad marriage.

Kathleen Norris, Martie - The Unconquered (1917). The first thing I've read by Norris - who has been recommended to me from several directions, and I can see why.

Kate O'Brien, The Flower of May (1953). Another excellent novel from O'Brien.

Susan Lanigan, A Trifle (2010). Ebook from Smashwords. Intense and disturbing.

Elizabeth Taylor, At Mrs Lippincote's (1945). I had previously tended to bounce off Taylor, but giving her another try and now getting on with her a lot better.

Eleanor Arnason, Mammoths of the Great Plains (2010), a brilliant novella.

Fumi Yoshinaga's manga, Ooku: The Inner Chambers 1 2 3 (2009-10) - I can seldom get on with manga, but I found this gender-reversal alternate history very compelling.

Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not A Game (2009).Strong female protagonist, moral complexity, gripping narrative.

Three of Lee Martin's Deb Ralston mysteries which I had managed to miss when they came out, found via the excellent Stop You're Killing Me! site, an invaluable guide to mysteries and their authors. The Day That Dusty Died (1993), Inherited Murder (1994), The Thursday Club (1997). Inherited Murder had a perhaps rather too intricate plot, but this is generally an excellent series and I wish it was continuing.

Delighted to see a new Barbara Hambly Benjamin January mystery, Dead and Buried (2010). Although the previous one ended on a note that could reasonably have considered to have been a point of completion, I was very glad that these were continuing. The standard remains high.

Victoria Janssen, The Moonlight Mistress (2009): an erotic supernatural romance which I greatly enjoyed - the World War I setting works extremely well.

Noel Streatfeild, The Whicharts (1931), reissued by Margin Notes Books, an adult and darker version of Ballet Shoes - three daughters of the same philanderer by different mothers, brought up by another of his mistresses, become stage children. In a rather different tone to her 'Susan Scarlett' romances, but very readable.

Re-read, the first time for many years, Irene Handl's extraordinary duology The Sioux (1965) and The Gold-Tip Pfitzer (1973), possibly not everybody's cup of tea, but still for me utterly compelling, the reverse of sentimental (in spite of the centrality of a dreadfully ill and suffering child), with moments of comedy, jolts of shock, and heartbreak.

Barbara Hambly, Homeland: A Novel (2009). Epistolary novel told in letters between two women, in the lead-up to and the outbreak of the American Civil War and its duration, one in the North and one in the South and both at somewhat of a slant to the communities around them. Beautifully done. I also enjoyed Hambly's historical detective novel published under the name of Barbara Hamilton, set in Boston just before the Revolution, The Ninth Daughter. Have also read with pleasure two graphic novels of a proposed trilogy by Hambly, Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness (2008-2009)

E H Young, The Vicar's Daughter (1928). Rationing out these as I don't have many of hers left.. Well up to standard - complex familial dynamics, piercing insights, and a surprising twist at the end.

Sherwood Smith, Treason's Shore (2009) - a really great conclusion to this compelling and complex sequence.

Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices (1941). Excellent novel by O'Brien, set in an Irish convent school just before the Great War, the intersection between the troubled (English) Reverend Mother and a young pupil (and less depressing, ultimately, than Frost in May). More recently read - perhaps not quite as good but still very well worth reading, The Last of Summer (1943) and Pray for the Wanderer (1938), which deal with similar themes of someone used to a more cosmopolitan milieu returning to a family they have never met or have been estranged from in the provinical Irish world of 'Mellick'.

Jacqueline Carey, Naamah's Kiss (2009) and Santa Olivia (2009). Two very different but equally highly readable books by this author. The first was luscious self-indulgence, picking up a generation or so after the Kushiel double-trilogy and the second was very different but surprisingly compelling. It is science fiction, rather than fantasy, bringing freshness to a perhaps well-worn science-fictional trope of the enclosed community and a looming if vague menace. It does deal well with experiences of physical intensity (though of a very different kind than in the Terre d'Ange setting) and complex emotional involvements.

Kudos to the small publisher Greyladies. I have greatly enjoyed the following works they have republished: Noel Streatfield writing as Susan Scarlett, Poppies for England (1947), Clothes-Pegs (1939), Murder While You Work (1944). Streatfield was dismissive of these works as 'potboilers' serialised in women's magazines, much less than her serious work (therefore employing a pseudonym), but they are really rather better than she gave them credit for. Beautifully specific settings and social milieux: a West End dress shop, a holiday camp just after World War II, a munitions factory. Lower middle/working class characters are taken seriously. Very good reads and although written as 'light romances' the romances are relatively unconventional, not the be-all and end-all of the story, and the heroes are not masterful alpha males. Also Josephine Elder, The Encircled Heart (1951) The central character is a woman doctor in the pre-NHS era. Conveys the excitement (based in the author's own experience according to an autobiographical talk incorporated in the volume) about new medical developments. Although the career versus marriage issue plays a large part in the plot, the husband is not demonised for his problems with the demands of his wife's profession. The ending, for the fifties, is wonderful.

A S Byatt, The Children's Book (2009): a lovely, lovely rich fruitcake of a book, though one that is so dense and layered and full of resonances between different parts of the story that the first read is going to miss a lot. A compelling narrative, even though it moves across such a large cast of characters. A few minor quibbles with historical details that probably no-one else would notice, but Byatt gets it pretty much right - the quibbles are very minor in contrast to what is well done and effective and authentic for period.

D E Stevenson, Miss Buncle's Book (1934). I think in my youth I read several of Stevenson's books (the titles elude me...) This was charming and amusing - a spinster in A Typical Literary English Village turns to writing a novel, rather than keeping chickens, when in economic straits. Wackiness ensues...

Several really outstanding works of fantasy: Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest, Jo Walton's Lifelode and Sarah Monette's Corambis (brings this series to a very satisfactory conclusion) were very different (all 2009), but all of them I belted through under narrative compulsion and now need to re-read for all the things I missed or the significance of which I missed the first time through Mike Carey's Thicker Than Water (2009) keeps up the standard of the previous Felix Castor novels and ratcheted up the complications and thickened the worldbuilding considerably. The standard is keeping well up in The Naming of the Beasts (2009)

Marilynne Robinson, Home (2008). Asolutely wonderful: grabbed me just as much as Gilead did: Robinson is thoroughly excellent at making very ordinary things seem compelling and very small things full of deep pregnant significance. Okay, there is one final plot twist which is not going to come as a surprise to anyone who has read Gilead, although it is a revelation to Glory.

Jo Walton, Half a Crown (2008). A wonderful conclusion to this superb trilogy: the extrapolation of what 1960 might have been like was spot-on. Even if the ending was, relatively, happy, it came at high cost, and, although the actions of the central characters were important, they were happening against a background in which popular feeling against the system did seem to be emerging, in a way that seemed historically very plausible indeed. All sorts of small clever touches.

The Fairies Return or New Tales for Old (1934): by Eric Linklater, E M Delafield, Clemence Dane, Lord Dunsany, R J Yeatman and W C Sellar, Christina Stead, Lady Eleanor Smith, Helen Simpson, G B Stern, Anna Gordon Keown, Somerville sans Ross. Charming anthology of modern versions of classic fairytales - some of which invoke the supernatural in some form, while others rework them as realism.

Parody Party (1936). A lovely selection of parodies by E. C. Bentley, John Betjeman, Ivor Brown, Cyril Connolly, Francis Iles, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Rose Macaulay, A. G. Macdonell, J. B. Morton, L. A. Pavey, Edward Shanks, G. B. Stern, Rebecca West, Douglas Woodruff, edited by Leonard Russell. Some take-offs authors who are justly little-remembered , but some are classics probably because people still read e.g. Aldous Huxley (Connolly hits him off exactly) and Buchan (Morton's 'The Queen of Minikoi' is dead-on). Rose Macaulay does a splendid Hemingway smackdown.

Patricia McKillip, The Bell at Sealey Head (2008): charming fantasy,

Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down (2008) - I had immense difficulty getting hold of this but it was well worth the effort. It engrossed me to the exclusion of the scenery while travelling from Budapest to Vienna. A wonderful read: the style is amazing, there were points where I just paused to savour the prose (and the insights), but it also had onward narrative momentum. I do most thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca West Today: Contemporary Critical Approaches (2006). Some dense and downright turgid examples of academicese - a bit disastrous if you're going to be quoting West! - but some interesting stuff. However, the best thing, is undoubtedly the publication in full of a length episode which was omitted from the Aubrey novel sequence, which was not just vintage West (and Aubreys) but suggesting something like a redemptive arc for Cordelia, who does take an immense amount of narrative flak over the course of the trilogy.

Sherwood Smith, King's Shield (2008), which is continuing to do extremely interesting and unexpected things with genre expectations. In ongoing and presumably open-ended series; as also in her other recent publications, A Posse of Princesses and A Stranger to Command.

Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia (2008) - positively Mitchisonian foregrounding of the marginal and silenced figures in myth and history. Beautifully done, and very much about recuperating those stories that are happening behind or in the interstices of the traditional heroic narratives. The overlooked and neglected stories of women who had to cope with the fall-out from those narratives, and keep life going meanwhile.

Scarlet Thomas, The End of Mr Y (2007). A book where the reviews left me in some doubt whether this is something that is totally me or going to miss its mark entirely. In fact, neither. Worked well in winding up the convolutions of the plot, and then ran out of steam at the point where it should have whooshed unwound. Ending seems gratutiously tacked on.

Elizabeth Bear, Ink and Steel (2008). Very possibly Bear's best yet, and I say this as someone who went in with some qualms to a novel, however much set in an alternate reality, which I know is going to feature Shakespeare and Marlowe as characters. But it worked for me very well indeed. And I loved what she did with Shakespeare's marriage. Splendid evocations of the different and complex settings. And the second half of the duology, Hell and Earth (2008) fully matched up.

Ellen Klages, Portable Childhoods (2007) and The Green Glass Sea (2006). These are wonderful - absolutely deceptive simplicity of style over stunning resonances.

L Timmel Duchamp, Blood in the Fruit (2007) (reviewed here) and Stretto (2008) (which brings the Marq'ssan Cycle to a brilliant conclusion). Compelling reads as well as thought-provoking and politically savvy.

Mike Carey, The Devil You Know (2006), Vicious Circles (2007) Dead Men's Boots (2008). I suppose these count as paranormal thrillers/supernatural noir, a genre about which I am often rather sceptical, but these worked very well for me. The London setting is really, really well done. Carey even managed to set one of these in an archive and not have me hurling the book at the wall.

Nicola Griffith, Always (2007). Extremely good, as were the other Aud Torvingen thrillers. Highly recommended. Interesting takes on women, violence, physical risk in a complex interweaving of two narrative strands.

Dorothy Whipple, The Closed Door and Other Stories. Recently reissued by Persephone - selection from 3 volumes of short stories published during her lifetime. Some of these stories are creepy little gems of quiet domestic horrors, others are about women rescuing themselves or other women from the stultifying hand of family assumptions and suburban respectability. Very well-done.

Jane Haddam, Cheating at Solitaire (2008). This was another hard-to-put down, got to find out what happens, read. Although some elements of the plot reiterate things she's done before this was all very good. And what's happening in the longer series arc is also intriguing.

Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, The Exordium 1-5 - The Phoenix in Flight (1993), Ruler of Naught (1993), A Prison Unsought (1994), The Rifter's Covenant (1995), The Thrones of Kronos (1996). A big fat far-future space-opera - perhaps a shade too much far-future-futtock-shroudery of space-battles and hairsbreadth escapes for my personal tastes, and a complex multistrand narrative with some strands that engage less than others. But I thought it had a lot going for it in terms of having a future in which whiteness is a rare and rather bizarre atavism among the human populations, strong characters of both genders, complex conformations of sex and relationships, etc, and some wonderful worldbuilding and alien races, depictions of contrasting social arrangements, weight given to the importance of diplomacy and the deployment of influence and networking. It also ended on a note of everything not being neatly wound up.

Elizabeth Bear, Dust (2007). This had all the density of worldbuilding and complexity of agendas and interactions that one has come to anticipate: would repay a second less urgent reading, though probably worth waiting until further volumes in this world are out.

Samuel R Delany, Dark Reflections (2007). Beautifully written, and very unlike the last Delanys I read: the story of the life of a shy and retiring black poet living a marginalised existence in New York on the borderland of poverty.

May Sinclair, The Combined Maze(1913). Brilliant if depressing, and not dissimilar in many ways from Jude the Obscure, except without the hopeless intellectual aspirations and 'dun becos we are too menny'. But about the awful constraints on love and freedom and idealism placed by economic circumstance and conventions of respectability and sheer bad luck (and the expense and trouble of the existing Divorce Law), among the South London lower middle classes.

Charlotte Yonge, The Castle Builders or the deferred confirmation (1854), which I had been looking for for years. An early Yonge and she got a great deal better at showing not telling and dramatising the problems and spiritual crises of her characters.

Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown (1944): Sharp's great strength is about gently unsettling assumptions and foregrounding the eccentric and the quirky. It's decades since I last read this, and it holds up very well indeed.

Latest in series by Margaret Maron, Winter's Child (Knott) (2007), Marcia Muller, Vanishing Point (McCone) (2006), J A Jance Dead Wrong (Joanna Brady) (2006): all of which good and up to standard.

Annette Meyers, Hedging (2006). A return to her Smith and Wetzon mysteries set in the New York financial world with some digressions into the theatre. Giving one's series protag amnesia + someone trying to kill her does sound a bit like desperate kick-starting, but once that's been swallowed, it had all the strengths of this series, which I like a lot.

Jo Walton, Ha'penny (2007). Possibly even better than Farthing. Still spot on for period and milieu. Absolutely wonderful, the sense of how people were reacting and changing in different ways in response to the political situation, the complex dynamics of personal relationships (the Larkin sisters, Carmichael and Jack, Viola and her theatrical associates).

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves (2007). There have been comments on the fresh and gritty take on the animal-companion-bonding trope (and the male-male sex), but it's doing broader interesting things with questions about gender and power and contrasting models of social organisation. Also, I liked that the real threat was not that the trolls were Eeeevil in themselves, but climate change. All of this forms a solid substructure to an absolutely compelling story.

Ursula Le Guin, Powers (2007). This was very good, set in the same world as Gifts and Voices but taking it from yet another angle. Not readily boiled down to any kind of simple message, I felt that there was a contrast being set up between Gavir's unreliable and problematic power of seeing into the future and the stronger and less ambiguous power of story-telling and words.

Kage Baker, Sons of Heaven (2007). This has been such a long complex series that one wondered how it was ever going to be drawn to a conclusion, but this did it rather well, if with less gosh-bang-wow than might have been anticipated. All the threads were compelling in themselves, the outcome was - unexpected, and even immortals shown as capable of change.

Barbara Hambly, Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers (2007). Very much about the invisible but vital labour of women, about marrying into a job, about the conflicting duties that had to be negotiated and the sacrifices made, and the bonds between women even when there were other sources of conflict and hostility (symbolised perhaps by the mirror given by Marie Antoinette to Martha Washington). Hambly is always good on not making historical characters anachronistically modern in their outlook and assumptions.

Robin McKinley, Dragonhaven (2007). There have been rather mixed opinions about this, but I enjoyed it. Perhaps not my all-time top McKinley, but still pretty good: doing that thing which she does so well, which is actually describe a process in a way that makes it just as exciting as more obvious slash-and-bash action.

Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory (2007). O the sheer thrill of discovering this in an otherwise uninspired bookshop! This took some very unexpected directions (insofar as I had expectactions). As with previous volumes, leaves one longing for more.

Sarah Monette, The Bone Key (2007).A linked series in the 'creepy tales of the supernatural genre', done with absolutely spot-on voice and general tone, and, what one doesn't usually get with this sort of thing, the narrator (I don't think one can exactly call him a protag) does develop over the course of the episodes, is affected by them, is not just a recording device.

Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales 2: In the Cities of Coin and Spice (2007). This was lovely: lush, intertwining stories folding in and out of one another, spiralling rather than linear, echoing rather than reiterating a range of world-wide folktales. Now want to find the time to read both volumes together and pick up even more on the connections and resonances.

Making my way through the novels of E H Young: firstly William (1925), which was indeed a splendid example of the domestic realistic mode in its depiction of the complex interactions within a single family, then The Misses Mallett (1922), Miss Mole (1930), Chatterton Square (1947), Jenny Wren (1932) and its sequel The Curate's Wife (1934). Young is always good, but I think I prefer her works which are more about the problems of women later on in life, although her account of the first months after marriage in The Curate's Wife is very well done.

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (2005): very little in the way of dramatic action going on (at least, in the present of the book rather than the past on which the narrator reflects, and even then it's less his personal past than that of his forebears), but an absolutely wonderful and compelling read.

Elizabeth Bear, Whiskey and Water (2007) Each individual scene was good and gripping, but possibly a second reading would enable a better sense of the bigger picture of which they were a part. But far preferable to something where the overall arc is quite clear but the narrative path taken to get there thin.

Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam (2007). A gripping series of linked tales in an AU late nineteenth/early twentieth century. I am picky about the use of alternative history (though having an AU in which sorcery, wampyrs and so forth exist perhaps might provide some degree of pass) but this didn't ever have me grinding my teeth and enquiring 'if x changed at [particular point], how is that y is still the case at [point at which book is set]'. Dense, complex, allusive. Excellent.

Vera Nazarian, Dreams of the Compass Rose (2004). Lovely non-European trope fantasy: not just the setting, but the narrative, suggests entirely different traditions.

Jo-Ann Goodwin, Sweet Gum (2006). This was a compelling if rather odd literary thriller, set in parts of London adjacent to where I live. Partly it's in an (excellent) realist-thriller mode, but keeps veering off into gothic grue. I feel it would have helped to have known Spenser's The Faerie Queen better than I do, since presumably the use of passages as epigraphs, and some character name echoes, was meant to have some resonance.

Jane Haddam, Glass Houses (2007). As good as ever, and starts resolving a situation that has been hanging over the last few volumes. The usual complex gallery of characters.

Susan Palwick, Shelter (2007). This was rather long and I kept picking it up and putting it down but eventually got dragged into it, in spite of the fact that neither of the main viewpoint characters is particularly sympathetic. And in spite of the fact that fairly near future vaguely dystopic society setting is far from being one of my favourites.

Elizabeth Bear, Undertow (2007). Good, engaging, yet somehow not, for me, quite as effective as some of Bear's other work. Which is still leaves it pretty good and above the average.

Emma Bull, Territory (2007). Long-awaited, and did not disappoint. A brilliant essay at producing an American mythic fantasy, embedded in a well-researched and convincing historical reconstruction of how the Old West of the cowboy movies actually was: i.e. including women, Chinese, etc, usually absent or vague scene-setting figures lacking stories of their own. My only cavil is that it's clearly not a self-contained novel but leading to further developments. However, I can live with that, providing I don't have to wait quite so long for the next installment.

Sarah Monette, The Mirador (2007). This was absolutely wonderful. To some extent it's filling in various bits of back story from previous volumes, it also does some great stuff in complexifying some of the characters from earlier episodes, The problems due to characters not communicating are for obvios and plausible reasons, rather than being an otherwise inexplicable necessity to keep the plot going.

Sherwood Smith, The Fox (2007). There are a lot of things that she's doing here that I really love, which said, I enjoyed this slightly less than Inda. I would have liked more about the apparently quieter yet still important things various characters not involved in maritime derring-do were up to, which was such a strong point in Inda. But I am really looking forward to what happens next.

Sharon Shinn. The Thirteenth House (2006). As with Mystic and Rider (2005) at the outset I was thinking "bog-standard generic fantasy, and not even hints of ambiguity" and then found it absolutely rivetting and hard to put down, because of the well-drawn characters and the realistic conflicts of motivation they experience. Dark Moon Defender (2007) kept up the standard.

Currently working through the novels of May Sinclair, as and when I can get hold of them, so far The Divine Fire(1904), The Helpmate, (1908), The Romantic (1920) and Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922). Sing hey for cheapish POD editions of this hard to find author. Most recently: The Belfry (aka Tasker Jevons) (1916). What a compelling writer Sinclair can be: picks one up and grabs one and makes one keep reading. This addresses a number of issues that crop up in her work - cross-class relationships, competition and envy between writers, courage and cowardice. Gripping. Also read, The Judgement of Eve (1907)

George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (1880). Cable was recommended by Dame Rebecca West in her Paris Review interview as an unjustly forgotten writer. In spite of the phonetically rendered dialect, and long expository chunks of backstory narration, this novel of New Orleans life just after the Louisiana Purchase held up pretty well.

Grace Aguilar, Women's Friendship: A Tale of Domestic Life (1850). Not bad, and surprisingly readable in spite of some deeply unrealistic emotional dialogue and some rather melodramatic happenings for a proclaimed novel of domestic life.

Jill Paton Walsh, The Bad Quarto (2007). A vast improvement after the falling-off in her previous Imogen Quy mystery (Debts of Dishonour), sticking more closely to Cambridge and its idiosyncrasies and traditions (e.g. climbing architectural features).

Elizabeth Bear, The Chains That You Refuse (2006). I am sometimes a bit iffy about short stories, but these were gripping, and likely to be gone back to and savoured.

Edward St Aubyn, Mother's Milk (2006). This was very good indeed. It was a little hard to get into at first, as the first section is from the viewpoint of a prenaturally thoughtful and analytic five-year-old, but once in this really grabbed. It's the continuing story of Patrick from Some Hope, now married and with children but finding that although he has managed not to replicate his own father's appalling defects as husband and parent, he's still in a state of misery, anger and near-alcoholism, as well as facing serious issues with his dying mother. It gains from having read the preceding volumes, but I think it would also stand on its own.

Elizabeth Bear, Carnival (2006). Rivetting, compelling, and unpredictable. Great worldbuilding, characters and tension of situation. Relationships that centre on unresolved emotional issues and conflicting agendas. It might held to have a feel for some of the genre motifs it's riffing off, but that's not really necessary to enjoy it.

Karen Traviss, Matriarch (2006). Highly recommended, but as it is mid-series would not suggest starting here. But it just keeps the action and tension and the unexpected coming. Her Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Bloodlines (2006), even though it is working within what I suspect are fairly stringently drawn lines of character and longer plot arcs, was still a surprisingly good read, the characters were not cardboard, and the sliding of one character towards the Dark Side was plausible and not all about 'whee! I'm villainous and evil, me!'

Catherynne Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (2006). Wow, this is one that demands more than one reading, it's dense, allusive internally and extra-textually, exquisitely written, folding and unfolding from story to story.

L Timmel Duchamp, Tsunami (2007) (Book 3 of the Marq'ssan Cycle). I wasn't sure how or where this could go on after the shocking yet inevitable ending of Renegade, but it just picked me up and compelled me from the outset. Outcomes remain unpredictable.

P C Hodgell, To Ride a Rathorn (2006). Another one which is not the place to start, but keeps up the fascination of this series.

Lemony Snicket, The End (2006). An ending to the series which actually worked, neither completely at odds with what had gone before, nor unbearably bleak.

Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, The Mislaid Magician (2006). Magic and railways, what's not to like? Along with the further development of the characters from the earlier books.

Edward St Aubyn, On the Edge (1998). Scintillatingly brilliant, a novel about people in the 'Human Potential Movement'. Most fictional works which have ventured into this area have gone either for some blend of satire and farce, or for the sinister creepy cult angle. St Aubyn strikes the difficult balance between vivid awareness of the absurdities, and a recognition that there are, at least for some individuals, surprising moments of illumination and transcendance, and that the various gurus and anti-gurus can combine genuine insights with utter nonsense. His A Clue to the Exit (2000) was also streets ahead of most contemporary writing, but not quite in the same class as On the Edge or the trilogy Some Hope (see below).

Kage Baker, The Machine's Child (2006) Left hanging over a cliff again at the end, wondering how on earth she is going to wind up all the threads in the grand finale. Panting for more.

Delia Sherman, Changeling (2006). There may be common themes, but Sherman is not a writer who is writing the same book over and over again. Changeling seems entirely different from Through a Brazen Mirror (1988) or The Porcelain Dove (1993). This is an intriguing meta-take on fairy-tale motifs set in present-day New York.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg (2006). Utterly delightful, and although there is probably no such thing as a bad Wynne Jones, among the stronger works - it has much more going for it than Conrad's Fate (2005), set in the same universe (the Chrestomanci series).

Sherwood Smith, Inda (2006). This was a smashing read, I long for the next episode. Subtlety and diplomacy and not just hacking one's way through the opposition are depicted as good (and difficult) things, female characters are shown as strong and having agency without having to 'drag up', plus admirable complexity of the characters and their responses to the general demands of the culture and the situations in which they find themselves.

Jo Walton, Farthing (2006). A very well-worked out combination of a traditional English countryhouse murder mystery and an alternate-history in which the Nazis didn't win, but a peace was successfully negotiated with the UK so that Hitler could turn his attention undivided to the Soviet Union. The period tone and feel are very well done indeed, as are the voices of the two narrative strands. There are certain hints that there are other differences in this particular version of British and European history than just the peace settlement and the persistence of US isolationist policies: but these are far from intrusive.

Margaret Drabble, The Sea Lady (2006). A curious and complex book and I'm pretty sure that the first reading has missed things. It returns to one of Drabble's recurrent themes, in which a character feels stuck in a dead-end from which they have been, in some sense, shaken loose by the end of the novel.

Edward St Aubyn, Some Hope (omnibus edition of the 'Patrick Melrose trilogy', Never Mind 1992, Bad News 1994, Some Hope 1998). This was stunning. St Aubyn deals with some supremely nasty characters - Patrick's father is the nastiest, not just in terms of the other noxious characters in these particular novels, but one of the nastiest pieces of work in fiction - and unpleasant situations, and nonetheless has glimmers of decency and kindness and possibilities of some kind of redemption. The three novels each take short concentrated spans of time in Patrick Melrose's life, into which other characters' lives and viewpoints are interwoven. Characters come and go and recur, sometimes very unexpectedly. Some are stuck in the same posture, and others manage to change. Brilliant.

Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Scion (2006). More luscious self-indulgence.

Sarah Monette, The Virtu (2006). I liked this rather more than Melusine - partly because there were not the extended periods of Felix being out of his mind. Longing for next installment.

Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword (2006). This was wonderful, and I need to go back and reread Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings to pick up all the connections.

L Timmel Duchamp, Renegade: Book Two of the Marq'ssan Cycle (2006). Intense, rivetting, shocking. I am relieved to see that next book is out in a few months, I'm not sure I can wait another whole year.

Elizabeth Bear, Blood and Iron (2006). Another intense gripping read, full of complex strands and relationships and difficult choices. Stunning depiction of the two realms.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show (1936). Very, very good. Intense friendship between women! Revolution of 1848! Communism! etc. The period detail feels spot-on without being heavy. Though would an efficient manager of her own affairs and estate like Sophia really not know if her husband was legally able to cut off her access to her own money and property?

Ursula Le Guin, Voices(2006) liked this rather better than Gifts (2005) to which it is a sequel: Le Guin seems to be working on a delicate border between the archetypal and the stereotyped, but on the whole, keeping the balance at the right point.

Sheila Kaye-Smith, Joanna Godden (1921): suppressing one's Cold Comfort Farm-induced qualms about intense novels of life in rural Sussex. Not bad, actually. Story of a woman who inherits her father's farm on Romney Marsh and sets out to farm it herself (rather than either marrying someone who will take this on or hiring a man to manage it). Less about 'timeless rurality' than I'd imagined, much more located in a specific time as well as place. Susan Spray (1931) was erhaps a bit more sukebindy, but still a good read, and again, not about timeless rhythms of rural life, very much about a period when even in remote agricultural hamlets life was changing.

May Sinclair, The Rector of Wyck(1925). That strange thing, a compelling read about good people and disappointed lives. I was surprisingly gripped by this story of the young woman who is a non-believer and then falls in love with and marries a clergyman, and their lives together in a small rural parish. Must read more Sinclair.

Lettice Cooper, The New House (1936, recently republished by Persephone Press). A delightful but far from lightweight book, set in the mid-1930s in a Northern provincial city. Takes one day in the life of a family, when the mother (and unmarried daughter-at-home) move out of the old family home into a smaller house. It's a lovely study in generations (in particular generations of women in the same family) and in the relationships/similarities/differences between different family members: the mother, her maiden-aunt sister, the two daughters and their married brother (and his wife and much-loved infant daughter). Also recommended National Provincial (1938), a panoramic study of a city similar to, if not, Leeds in the late 1930s at a time of economic and political upheaval and uncertainty.

Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief (1996), The Queen of Attolia (2001), The King of Attolia (2006). A series of 3 excellent, compelling, fantasies, marketed as YA but with a good deal of sophistication, subtlety and complexity. Highly recommended, though saying too much about plot details is difficult without spoilers.

Kate O'Brien, As Music and Splendour (1958): the story of two young girls, Rose and Clare, who are sent from Ireland to a convent in Paris to study singing, in the late 1880s or so, and then bundled off to Rome to more advanced studies. They both become opera divas, although Clare is more interested in singing non-operatic, church, music: but they are intended for opera, where the money to pay back their patrons in Ireland, the convent in Paris, etc, comes from. It's very good, and seems convincing, about the music world, especially the operatic world, of Italy at that period. It also has, and I think this is remarkable for 1958 and a woman of 61 writing: female friendship - Rose and Clare are and remain friends, not hairpulling screeching rivals; a non-pathologised lesbian relationship - while this is not altogether happy, it's shown as something that is good for Clare; Rose cool-mindedly choosing her first lover, even if she gets carried away into emotional depths she doesn't want with the second. Sophisticated and mature relationships between various of the other characters. Maybe not the Greatest Novel Ever Written, but it is a very worthwhile and engaging read. Also recommended by O'Brien, The Ante-Room (1934), set around the same period in an upper middle class Irish family household over a few days, with the mother dying of cancer.

Joolz Denby, Borrowed Light (2006): her usual compelling narrative voice, plot tension, etc, in the context of a Cornish seaside village of various potentially mutually antagonistic groups.

Andrew Taylor, The American Boy: compelling in a rather different register to the Lydmouth mysteries, though I suspect I may have missed some of the Poe allusions.

Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness (2005). Enjoyed this. I liked the solidity of the different settings, and I really liked the ambiguity at the end. It could have been one of those simple 'reversal of everything protag initially believed' plot twists, but this was setting up something much more ambivalent in its effect. Looking forward to the sequel. Magic Lessons (2006) keeps up the tension and the ambiguity about people's motives and intentions, adds yet more questions into the mix, and leaves the reader longing for the next volume.

Naomi Novik, Temeraire (2005). Awwwww, bless! This is a book I want to pick up and cuddle, it's delightful. As were sequels Throne of Jade (2006) and Black Powder War (2006)

Gwyneth Jones, Life (2004). This was very good, very plausibly worked out, very well-written, lots of interesting ideas and questions, the characters were well-drawn and had depth and complexity. Yet somehow I prefer the continuing sequence of which the latest installment is Band of Gypsys.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978) and Offshore (1979) and Human Voices (1980). Fitzgerald is now definitely on my 'get hold of everything she's written and read it' list. These three short novels are wonderful - economical and precise. I like the sense that she's focussing on marginal lives.

Karen Joy Fowler, Sister Noon (2001): I found this much more interesting and original than The Jane Austen Book Club, which I thought rather slight. The magic-realist note works, I think, rather effectively for a very specific historical and geographical location in which numerous different worlds were colliding.

Karen Traviss, The World Before (2005): definitely keeping up the standard and the tension and showing characters changing and developing in response to circumstance.

Alison Lurie, Truth and Consequences (2005). I have been panting for this ever since I heard it was in the offing, because I am a longtime Lurie fan. I loved it, I experienced a pang when I realised I was over halfway through and the end could not be far off. I am also strongly tempted to go back and reread The Last Resort (1998) and The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988).

Tanith Lee writing as Esther Garber, Thirty Four (2004). Metafictional games, lesbian eroticism, Lee's style... what's not to like?

Sarah Monette, Melusine (2005). This was a book that demanded a second reading, following a mad gallop through just to find out what happened. It was a wonderful read and I'm longing for the sequel. Things I particularly liked: the naming, wonderfully strange and evocative. The light touch with world-building and the non-standard world that was built. The fact that although the central characters are male, there's a sense of women having agency, being individuals, and generally present in the society as depicted.

Sara Paretsky, Fire Sale (2005). Think I prefer this to the previous one, though generally she seems well back on form. I liked in this one the fact that she meets another woman who manages to make her feel like Ms SafetyFirst-Riskaverse, and the fact that there were fundamentalist Christian characters who weren't baddies and were three-dimensional.

Barbara Hambly, Circle of the Moon (2005). Okay, not the new Sun Wolf and Starhawk that I wish she'd write, but is there such thing as a bad Hambly? (okay, there have been a few massively depressing books, but the only really unreadable one I've come across was a co-authored thing in some kind of franchised series).

Andrew Taylor, Call the Dying (2004). The latest volume in the Lydmouth sequence, which I can't believe I haven't mentioned before. Wonderful feeling for the chilly dreary repression of the early 50s in provincial England, and the predicaments of the well-drawn characters. Complex mysteries going on under the complacent surface of small-town life.

Marie Jakober, Only Call Us Faithful (2002). This was wonderful. The American Civil War is a subject I tend to avoid in literature, but this story of a Southern Union sympathiser and secret agent was terrific. It's marginally fantasy - use of revenants reflecting on the events of the book, especially the obliteration of certain things from historical memory and the creation of myths. Jakober touches on the issue of people rewriting history to imply that the impersonal forces of progress would have achieved things that were, in fact, due to human struggles (in this case the abolition of slavery). An excellent work.

Naomi Kritzer, Freedom's Apprentice (2005): sequel to Freedom's Gate (2004), and I thought rather better - that was a rather stock (if well-done) 'learning better' narrative and this was about what happens after a character sees the light. Fulfilling the promise of her earlier duology, Fires of the Faithful (2002) and Turning the Storm (2003)

Elizabeth Bear, Scardown (2005) The much-anticipated sequel to Hammered and similarly edge of the seat fast-moving sf; and similarly cliff-hanging ending. Looking forward to the next volume.

Alanya to Alanya (Marq'ssan Cycle, Book 1) by L. Timmel Duchamp (2005), has the tension and pace of a good thriller, plus a well-worked-out extrapolated future - the outcome of gradual cumulative changes that seem quite plausible. One of the strengths of the book is the way that information is only gradually revealed during the course of the story, that there are no expository dumps but the build-up of people's assumptions and reactions and carefully dropped clues and foreshadowing until the advent of revelations that make absolute sense of things that have seemed bothering. There's also a sense that Duchamp has much more in reserve: for example, there are certainly things the reader has not yet discovered about the Marq'ssan by the end of Alanya to Alanya. Without that feeling that one sometimes gets that information is being withheld just to create mystery. Also to be recommended, her collection of shorter pieces, Love's Body: Dancing in Time (2004)

Two volumes of short stories by Ethel Colburn Mayne, Things that no-one tells (1910) and The Inner Circle (1925). Interesting - very much dealing with marginality and liminality and things that don't happen or can't easily be articulated, transient moments of insight or connection or misunderstanding.

Barbara Hambly, Dead Water (2004). If this is, as widely rumoured, the last of the Benjamin January series, it is a fitting culmination, which makes one want to go back and re-read from the beginning in the light of the arc suggested by the decision January makes here: that they were episodes in a personal journey. It's an extraordinarily satisfactory ending without at all compromising the reality of the historical situation or what has gone before.

Lorna Freeman, Covenants: A Borderlands Novel (2004). Looks like bog-standard generic fantasy, but worth reading. It has brio, it has humour, it has interesting interactions between individualised characters. I look forward to seeing more by her.

Marcia Muller, The Dangerous Hour (2004): a new Sharon McCone, and very good - I prefer these to her standalones.

Joolz Denby, Billie Morgan (2004). A tremendous followup to her two earlier novels. Salt and bitter and good. Compelling narrative voice, vivid characters, complex and realistic relationships, grittily real setting.

Candas Jane Dorsey, A Paradigm of Earth (2003). Much more linear and less obviously strange than Black Wine (1997), but still a sense of mystery and the unknowable remains. I liked the complexity of the characters' interactions.

Kage Baker, The Graveyard Game (2004). Perhaps suffice it to say that having finished this I immediately ordered a copy of the next volume. The suspense is building. However, it's building slowly, and what I found with this and the Dorsey was a tremendous enjoyment of reading them and involvement in what was going on, a desire to keep reading, which was not about slam-bang action and what happens next. Her The Anvil of the World (2003) (not part of this sequence) was also worth reading: interesting subversion of some bog-standard fantasy tropes.

Sara Maitland, On Becoming a Fairy Godmother (2003). Her latest volume of short stories, which I appear to have missed until just recently. As usual, there's a resonant use of fairytale and mythic tropes and rewritings of familiar narratives. One or two of these seem familiar (a version of the Jael/Deborah story featured, as I recall, in her first novel Daughter of Jerusalem). Very much to the fore, however, is a new concern with questions of ageing in women's lives, and becoming the older generation.

Two Tanith Lees: Mortal Suns (2004). It was only after finishing that I thought that I might have preferred the story after the story actually told, the process by which the narrator became the visionary and poetess who tells the tale of her earlier life. But that's a quibble. What was there was pretty good. And Metallic Love (2005). Sequel to The Silver Metal Lover (1985), which I must re-read (in fact I feel that at some point I may go on a Tanith Lee re-reading binge...) Rather a non-ending, perhaps.

Diana Wynne-Jones, Conrad's Fate (2005). I'm not sure I like the Chrestomanci sequence as much as some of her other work, but I'm not sure there's such a thing as a bad Wynne-Jones, just some that are better than others.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Balance of Trade (2004): set in the Liaden Universe of their other books, but at an earlier period and with different characters. Very enjoyable.

Barbara Hambly, Days of the Dead (2003) more Benjamin January, this time away from New Orleans to early C19th Mexico. Another gripping read. John Maddox Roberts, The River God's Revenge (2004), another enjoyable mystery in the SPQR series, and he makes defective public works the effective centre of the plot, a nice unusual twist.

Two excellent new science-fiction authors: Karen Traviss, with City of Pearl (2004) and Crossing the Line (2004) - strong characters, intriguing setting, powerful plotting, subtle shadings and complexities, and currently cliff-hanging ending waiting for next volume. Elizabeth Bear, Hammered (2004), also gives strong female characters and dynamic plotting in a cyber-punkish near future: again, leaves one eagerly anticipating next volume.

Susan Stinson, Venus of Chalk (2004) a quietly compelling and delightful work.

Running out of Dawn Powells to read, but the short stories in Sunday Monday and Always (1999), if not providing the the pleasures of her novels, have the kick of a dry martini, and similarly, probably work most satisfactorily if you don't take too many at a time.

Gillian Bradshaw, Render unto Caesar (2003): although it doesn't quite come up to her The Beacon at Alexandria, this is still pretty good, with a hero who uses his brain to out-think and out-flank the opposition, rather than directly attacking it. Good complex subsidiary characters as well.

Rosemary Kirstein,The Language of Power (2004), and, as I don't seem to have mentioned it before, the preceding volume in the same series, The Lost Steersman (2003), the long-awaited continuation of the story begun in The Steerswoman (1989) and The Outskirter's Secret, recently republished in an omnibus edition as The Steerswoman's Road

Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede, The Grand Tour (2004). At last, a sequel to Sorcery and Cecilia (now out in a new edition): not perhaps quite up to that, but still very, very, good.

Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game. Set in the same world as The King's Peace and The King's Name, very different, but just as good.

Finally finished Miklos Banffy's Transylvanian Trilogy, 'The Writing on the Wall': They Were Counted, They were Divided, They were found Wanting. The translation is workmanlike and readable, but one doesn't really get much sense of the original in the language. Nonetheless, it's a fascinating panorama of Hungary at the time, with a wide canvas, a critical attitude towards the inbred nature of national politics, vivid characters. Worth reading.

Patrick O'Brian, the Aubrey/Maturin novels, in one lengthy addicted gulp.

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw (2003): a novel of manners about dragons. Remarkable.

Was very impressed indeed by Kij Johnson's stunning Fudoki (2003). I found The Fox Woman (2000), with which it shares a setting (Heian Japan), mythology and some characters, enjoyable, but Fudoki is on an entirely different level. It's not only another 'older woman, beyond the conventional romance plot, new direction' novel, but also about the function and process of narrative, among other things. Beautifully written evocation of an unfamiliar society and mythos.

A number of new works by old favourites. The latest Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003), set in the same universe and with characters from The Curse of Chalion, but I think it is superior. One of a number of 'older woman, beyond the conventional romance plot, new direction' novels, in both litfic and genrefic that I've been reading recently. A new direction for Robin McKinley, Sunshine (2003), a vampire novel with a difference, set in a world only subtly different from our own, rather than the revisionist fairy-tale/fantasy worlds of her young adult works. Diane Duane's 'Young Wizards' sequence kept up the standard with Wizard's Holiday (2003). Sara Paretsky, Blacklist (2003): not perhaps quite as compelling as Total Recall, but still pretty good, though I wish she could have found some way of showing the effects of post-9/11 anti-terrorist fears without directly invoking a suspected terrorist. What is presumably, alas, the final Kate Fansler mystery by Amanda Cross, The Edge of Doom (2002). For also read by the late Carolyn Heilbrun, under her own name, see above. Doris Lessing, The Grandmothers (2003), four novellas - a lot of familiar themes and situations, but nonetheless worth reading in their own right. A. S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories: five stories with notes of grue and the fantastical.

A relatively new author for me (I read some of her YA books a long time ago I think), Madeleine L'Engle's The Small Rain (1941) and A Severed Wasp (1982) tell the story of the same woman, a gifted pianist, at different ends of her life. The first deals with her girlhood to the point where she accepts her musician's vocation, and the second with her as an elderly woman coming to terms with her memories and finding new directions and meaning in her life. And also makes reparation for the character's (and perhaps the author's?) youthful intolerance.

Re-read (and not sure why these didn't go in before) Jo Walton's The King's Peace (2000) and The King's Name (2001), a tour-de-force of imagining an alternative Arthurian story in a different analogue world.

Last but one (I think) of unread novels by G B Stern, Twos and Threes (1916): includes a number of themes which resurface in her later works. A bit unfocussed, and I was disappointed that the female friendship strand of the plot more or less disappeared, but I'm glad to have read it.

Dawn Powell, The Story of a Country Boy. Impressive, a kind of transitional work between the Ohio and the New York novels: small-town farm boy becomes a businessman in the big city. Find it very hard, however, to imagine how anyone in the 1930s thought that this could be effectively filmed: only by losing all the strengths of Powell's character analysis and authorial comments.

A cluster of good things recently: Barbara Hambly's latest instalment in the Benjamin January series, Wet Grave (2002), which ends on a positively cheerful note - something actively good happens for the central characters, rather than just surviving the harsh life of free coloureds in early C19th New Orleans. And, Dragonstar, which, again, moves on from the bleakness of Knight of the Demon Queen to conclude the sequence. A new Jane Haddam, Conspiracy Theory (2003). The latest in the Thursday Next saga, The Well of Lost Plots (2003) from Jasper Fforde (and more to come...). Not fiction, Suzy McKee Charnas's My Father's Ghost: The Return of My Old Man and Other Second Chances (2002), a touching and honest memoir with all the almost tactile strength of style also found in her novels. After many years of searching, an early novel of G B Stern's, Debatable Ground (aka Children of No Man's Land) (1919), which explores issues which would appear in her later work of transitional national and generational identities.

S J Rozan, Winter and Night (2002). I don't know why I forget, in between Rozan's novels, what a good writer she is and how compelling this series of thrillers is.

Much rejoicing as Antonia Forest's long out-of-print, and only very occasionally advertised secondhand at enormous prices, Falconer's Lure, has been republished as a reasonably priced trade paperback, with a new introduction by Forest about her Marlowe (and other) novels. This was something I had long been wanting to get hold of to read for the first time for about 25 years, and completes my Forest collection.

From the Journals of MFK Fisher (1999): interesting read of her immediate, spontaneous, less-considered, reflections on her life, though she was not a dedicated journal keeper. I was, however, rather annoyed to discover that this volume includes the essays published as Last House: Reflections, Dreams, and Observations 1943-1991 (1995), which I already owned as a separate volume.

One more Dawn Powell down (very few left to go, unfortunately, and those include the ones that don't seem to have enjoyed a reprint), The Happy Island: another acerbic study of New York life.

I've also been enjoying several of the works being republished by Persephone: though some of their volumes are (at best) near-misses as far as I'm concerned the number of hits remains remarkable.

Rebecca West, The Sentinel; An Incomplete Early Novel (edited by Kathryn Laing, 2002). See above on my passion for R West.This apprentice work is never, I think, going to be a favourite in the class of The Fountain Overflows (and the protagonist is fairly maddening), but there are distinctive West-ian thoughts and touches throughout.

I am getting less and less ready to devote my time to big thick fantasy novels/trilogies/endless series. If I manage to finish Vol 1 I bog down in Vol 2. However, I make an exception for Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart (2001) and Kushiel's Chosen (2002). Not perhaps to everyone's taste (decadent, sensuous, perverse...), but well-written, compellingly plotted, and with an intriguing protagonist/narrator who is, shall we say, quite the antithesis of the mighty-thewed sword-wielding warrior. And who is, perhaps, also a riff on the anguished tortured hero - instead of getting tied up and brutalised by enemies, as seems to happen to so many, pleasurably engages in consensual SM. Also, the first-person narration, even on the wide canvas and with the complex social and mythic structures Carey sets up, maintains a continuity and onward movement that gets lost in certain other, multi-character many-stranded fantasy epics. The latest volume, Kushiel's Avatar (2003) keeps up the standard, and again, defies conventional plot expectations.

Also in the fantasy field. A new Diana Wynne Jones, The Merlin Conspiracy, (2003) always a cause for rejoicing. Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings (2002): the long-awaited sequel to Swordspoint, by two writers who I wish would produce more, more frequently. Not perhaps quite reaching the high level of Swordspoint (1987) (possibly because it cannot strike the note of something new and unusual in the same way) but still very welcome, though I wish those realistic delvings of the archivally-minded historian had not met that rather outworn cliche, The Long-Lost Book of Power. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's The Tomorrow Log is not part of the Liaden sequence, but has many of the same charms.

Quite a flurry of recent publications by Ursula Le Guin, in both the Earthsea and the Hainish universes: Tales from Earthsea (2002), The Other Wind (2002). The Birthday of the World (2002)

Always welcomed, a new Laurie King mystery, especially if it's a Mary Russell. Justice Hall (2002) picks up strands from O Jerusalem (2001).

Some things I think I need to re-read, possibly more than once, to decide what I think of them, e.g. Carol Shields' Unless (2002). I won't say I was actually disappointed with A S Byatt's A Whistling Woman (2001): like Babel Tower, it went off in directions that seemed unexpected. But why should one expect books to do the predictable? (ditto Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters (2002)). Something that, as a member of the Victoria listserv, which was involved in the research process, I more or less had to read was Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (2002): impressive and compelling (and for me, the controversial ending worked). Vividly conveys to the point of sensory overload the tactile and olfactory qualities of Victorian life, and also the sense of a society (and individuals) in the process of change (rather than stuck in a static 'past'). Long yes, but not padded: takes a justifiable and successful risk with this. I have also managed to complete (except for one volume of short stories and a children's book) my collection of the works of Stella Gibbons, with Enbury Heath (1935) (possibly the most autobiographical work of this reticent writer) and her last published novel The Woods in Winter (1970); also my E M Delafield collection (except, I think, for the anonymously published 'Victorian' novel The Bazalgettes (1936)), with Humbug (1921), definitely not the cosiness some people expect from the author of the Provincial Lady books. And should also mention, as I don't seem to have done so already, Barbara Hambly's Sisters of the Raven (2002), as usual in a whole other class to most generic fantasy.

Barbara Hambly, Sold Down the River. Yet another in this excellent series set in early C19th New Orleans, with a 'free coloured' (and educated) central figure.

Caroline Stevermer, When the King Comes Home. My only complaint about Stevermer is that she writes much too slowly and has therefore published much too little.

Some recent rereads. Nancy Hale, The Prodigal Women (1942). An ideal journey book for a fast reader - it's long. The intertwined stories of 3 contrasted women in interwar America, a Boston native and two transplanted Southern sisters, and the male artist who is entangled with them. I first came across this in Florence King's With Charity Toward None, and while the book turned out not to be entirely as she described it, her enthusiasm led me to it and I'm very grateful. The omnibus edition (which doesn't seem to be currently available) of Dawn Powell's Angels on Toast, The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur is another good for long journeys volume - an orgy of Powellian incisive wit. Also enjoyed yet again Simon Raven's The Roses of Picardie and September Castle: falling between the 'Alms for Oblivion' sequence and 'The Firstborn of Egypt', they pick up characters from the former and anticipate events in the latter. Possibly the best introduction to Raven. Another good place to start is Doctors Wear Scarlet, a very different kind of vampire story. Compelling. A justification for the perhaps old-fashioned indirect narration technique.

And I finally succumbed to getting the full set of the Kate Allen mysteries, some of which I had read and some of which I hadn't: both the Alison Kaine sequence, Tell Me What You Like, Give My Secrets Back, Takes One to Know One, Just a Little Lie, and the stand-alone (sort of - also set in the Denver lesbian community and some character cross-overs), I Knew You Would Call.

New Tony Fennelly! Don't Blame the Snake, Top Publications, 2001. Margo Fortier rather than Matthew Sinclair, but no such thing as a bad Fennelly.

Unremittingly grim, but with immense linguistic vigour and superb characterisation, two novels by Joolz Denby, Stone Baby, HarperCollins, 2001, and Corazon fall on some kind of boundary between the noir thriller and pure horror - except that the horror is at what humans can do to others and themselves.

Light entertaining fiction is one of the most demanding of all genres I sometimes think - it's very difficult to get right. Teresa Edgerton in The Queen's Necklace, Eos, 2001, certainly succeeds. A wonderful blend of fantasy and Regency romance. Enjoyable but not silly.

Still working my way through Dawn Powell, and catching up on her mid-western (as opposed to New York) novels: The Bride's House, Come Back to Sorrento, Dance Night, and also the New York novel, A Time to Be Born, set in the febrile period just before America entered World War II. Also read and recommended in this connection, Tim Page's biography of Powell - Page is pretty well singlehandedly responsible for the revival of interest in her and the republication of her novels in the elegent Steerforth Press editions. He has also edited her Selected Letters, which I've finally finished.

And I continue to make my way through the non-Cold Comfort Farm novels of Cold Comfort Farm novels of Stella Gibbons, the works of G. B. Stern, and have had exceptional luck in adding to my Charlotte Yonge collection over the past few months.

Discussed in the spring of 2001 on the litalk-l list, Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark was a great read and very thought-provoking. How many novels are there about the odyssey of a female artist?

Sequels (e.g. Gail Godwin's Evensong) or additions to series (e.g. Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign, Sara Paretsky's Hard Time) perhaps work better if one is up to speed with the predecessors. I was engrossed by Elizabeth Arthur, Antarctic Navigation (1994) - in spite of a few notes of whimsy or magical realism about which I had some qualms, this long and dense novel was a worthy successor to, indeed improved upon, Arthur's other novel about women (and men) facing up to the extremes of the natural world, Beyond the Mountain. Otherwise quite a lot of re-reading, from Naomi Mitchison's We Have Been Warned (finally obtained via the good offices of, to working my way through Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and Simon Raven's Alms for Oblivion novel-sequences, and the non-Cold Comfort Farm novels of Stella Gibbons, as well as slowly catching up with the extensive output of G. B. Stern.

I'd recommend Sarah Schulman's Shimmer, Avon 1999, an intricately wrought tripartite narrative of the McCarthy era in New York exquisitely attuned to the interplay of gender, class, race, and sexual orientation - a daring and successful departure by Schulman. Her StageStruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, about the plagiarism of her novel People in Trouble to form the story of the hit musical Rent uses this as a take-off for a consideration of wider issues and is well-worth reading.
And I have greatly enjoyed the new A S Byatt, The Biographer's Tale, even though it is not the much awaited next volume in the sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower. It is possible that it may disappoint some of those who enjoyed Possession: it covers some of the same territory without the rather more traditional narrative framework. But a rivetting read nonetheless.
Re-read, and was again impressed by, two books by Doris Lessing: the quest-narrative Mara and Dann, and the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade.
Jane Smiley, Horse Heaven: absorbing, enchanting, Smiley well back on form: along the lines of Moo rather than those of her previous 'horsey' book, Barn Blind.
More on the genre side: Pamela Dean, Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary. This is less obviously fantasy at first than some of Dean's other works: as with Tam Lin she builds up small dislocations and hints of unease with enormous subtlety: the book certainly gains from a second and subsequent readings. Her prose is a delight.
Two new Barbara Hambly novels (her recent works seem to be striking a rather darker note): on the fantasy side Knight of the Demon Queen, a sequel to Dragonshadow, and a historical mystery set in early nineteenth century New Orleans, Graveyard Dust, which follows on from A Free Man of Color and Fever Season, featuring the free African-American doctor and musician, Benjamin January in a densely realised historical and geographical context. I don't usually care much for historical mysteries, but Hambly's are among those I make an exception for.

Oh, joy - at last a new Sarah Caudwell, The Sibyl in her Grave (a whole new and idosyncratic take on the 'classic English village crime story'), but, alas, presumably, since Caudwell died earlier this year, the last we can expect to see of Professor Hilary Tamar and chums. The earlier three novels all appear to be currently available Thus was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, and The Sirens Sang of Murder.

Discovery - or rediscovery - of 2000 was Dawn Powell. I devoured her Diaries and am working my way through the novels: so far My Home is Far Away, Turn, Magic Wheel, and The Locusts Have No King. Saving up for rereading the omnibus edition (which doesn't seem to be currently available) of Angels on Toast, The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur. I'm trying to restrain myself from using her brilliant and incisive lines as Quotation of the Week every week.

I was very impressed by Robert Irwin's Satan Wants Me, which takes the concept of unreliable narrator to new levels.

After what seemed far too long, a new Jane Haddam Gregor Demarkian mystery, Skeleton Key - and it looks as though the Patience McKenna novels published as Orania Papazoglou are finally being republished (though, smugly, I already have copies of all these).

Ursula Le Guin, The Telling. I really enjoyed this. It's deceptively simple, but not simplistic. Doris Lessing, The Sweetest Dream. In spite of her gratuitous description of various manifestations of female parasitism as the result of feminism (rather than using feminism as their latest chameleon disguise), this was a tremendous and involving read. Sara Paretsky's Total Recall sees her, and VI Warshawski, way back on form in an intricately and intelligently plotted tale involving recovered memory, Holocaust reparations, and long-held secrets.

Barbara Hambly, Die Upon a Kiss: the latest Benjamin January mystery. Besides the usual rich portrayal of early C19th New Orleans from the perspective of January ('free coloured' musician with medical training), brings in a lot of wonderful details about opera at the time. Jasper fforde, The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book. Indescribable. If the actual plot (massive conspiracy, evil organisations, time-travelling etc) is not exactly new stuff, the details (an alternative England with dodos as pets, migrating mammoths, not to mention the Prose Portal...) and the tone make these irresistable. Other delightful light reading (as I've said before, the writing of good light reading is a rare and precious gift), more works in the Liaden Universe by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (now having the volumes published by Meisha Merlin after that far too long hiatus of a decade after Carpe Diem): most recent, I Dare, which more or less winds up the sequence (so probably not the best place to start) started by Agent of Change, now reprinted along with Conflict of Honours and Carpe Diem in the omnibus Partners in Necessity. And somehow I seem to have omitted mentioning Jane Haddam's True Believers. Haddam has joined my select buy when it comes out in hardback list, so I can also recommend her latest, Somebody Else's Music which is, among other things, an acute study of the long-term effects of school bullying on victim and perpetrators.

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Last modified 14 May 2014