I have long known that I am a crap reviewer, since I can never really get beyond
I liked it / didn't like it (usually the latter)
The author (or whatever) is getting better / worse (usually the latter too, I fear)
It did / did not lack verisimilitude, if it was going for it
This shows the author (or whatever)'s hang ups / bizarre prejudices / kinks in the following ways.
Therefore this is going to be a rather pointless exercise. But here goes... (links are to amazon.co.uk)
Best novel published more or less this year
This one is going to surprise you, but it has got to be Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow.
With no new works by Gibson, Stephenson or Coupland, and a distinctly mediocre showing by Kathy Reichs, Jasper Fforde and Christopher Brookmyre, this wins because it was different at least. As I have probably mentioned before, the hero is the child of a mountain and a washing machine, and has a number of equally unusual siblings, and actually this is described pretty well. It does suffer rather from the cut and shut of the fantasy plot and the heroic setting up of a mesh WiFi network and in parts it reads rather like an attempt in fictional form to demonstrate how one should overcome people's objections to a WiFi node being placed in their place of business.
However, whilst I doubt he will ever be a great writer, he is at least getting better. Which is rare.
The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Award (even though he's not dead yet) for someone who could probably be a decent writer if he gave up on the fantasy
Goes to Neil Gaiman for Anansi Boys. This thought struck me when I read American Gods and struck me again more forcefully with Anansi Boys. Enough with the archetypes, already.
Best novel that I thought I had read all the way through but actually hadn't, but finished in 2005
This happens more often than you might think, due to a process known as 'hamstering'. I discovered that the reason that I thought Miss Wyoming was Coupland's least memorable book was.... that I had only read about the first fifty pages, and also that I had skipped the middle fifty to sixty percent of The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman.
This is a hard choice, but it has to be said that Douggie does tend to tread the same ground quite often, so I will award this to The Child Garden.
Best reread novel
This, I think, has to be 253 by Geoff Ryman, which is available on teh InterWeb for your enjoyment. This is beautiful and strange. For those not familiar with this, there is a page of 253 words devoted to each of 253 occupants of a tube train which, and this is hardly a spoiler given the title of the web page I have linked to here, crashes at the end of the book. This is the sort of concept where it would be very irksome if someone had the idea but then executed it badly, but in this case it is a triumph. As a depiction of the variety of life in London it has not been beaten and is probably unbeatable. If you are not going to read the whole thing then these links to the 253rd passenger and the 7th carriage in the crash will give the flavour of the astonishing nature of this work (but then again, if you haven't read through to the end you may not fully appreciate them).
Best new non-fiction book
Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds Of British Cinema by Matthew Sweet.
This is an astounding book. It is a history of British cinema, challenging conventional wisdom about its quality and significance. He has clearly done his research and it includes accounts of his interviews of early actors, directors etc. many of whom are now completely unknown, and who were in their nineties when he interviewed them (many are now dead). The title is of course a homage to Hollywood Babylon - he chose the name Shepperton deliberately because it lacks the connotations of Ealing or Elstree - and it is also full of now forgotten scandals and tragedies. For fans of dead-tech there is also plenty of description of the technology used. You cannot open a page at random without finding something amazing or poignant or both.
This is without doubt the book of the year. Buy many copies and give them as Christmas presents.
Best non-new non-fiction book read for the first time this year
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents by Ellen Ullman.
'I came for the databases but stayed for the polyamory'. Or should that be 'I came for the polyamory but stayed for the databases'?
This is another book that deserves to be much more widely known. It should be the standard book pointed to when people are choosing a non-technical book describing what the world of computing is like. The standard work filling this niche is 'The Soul Of A New Machine', but that is about the creation of a new computer and its OS and how many of us do that? (And you can put down your hand and stop looking smug right now!).
This book, on the other hand, describe Ullman's life as a contract developer working on the sort of systems that 99.9% of developers work on. It also goes beyond this into the realms of geek culture e.g. bisexuality (Ullman is bi) and polyamory.
For a writer on these subjects Ullman is unusually self-aware and concerned about the social impacts of what she is doing. My only criticism is that sometimes her concern crosses the line into the sort of NPR / Grauniad 'oh look at me, I am terribly terribly concerned and therefore must be a good person' realm - it is no surprise to find out that some of the book had been broadcast on 'All Things Considered'. Nonetheless, I commend it to you, and not just because one of the obscure C++ class names she mentions (actually the only one she mentions probably) is from the grid library that I have the good fortune (!) to use.
Best novel read for the first time this year
Would have to be The Bug by Ellen Ullman.
This is Ullman's novel about the pursuit of a bug and its effect on the lives of some of the people involved. It is not up to the standard of Close To The Machine. It is slightly more glib and the characters ring less true, it is also slightly dated. Ullman has set it in the mid 80s (I think) and the people and technology reflect the era. Nonetheless, it is well written and well observed.
Most embarrassing references to heterosexual oral sex in a novel
Air by Geoff Ryman. From whom, of course, the title to this post comes. It is hard to believe that this awful book could be written by the author of the Child Garden and 253. As well as the baby implanted in her stomach (see, these heteros can't even go down on each other without the risk of pregnancy), it is all rather naff. The concept is that a technology is going to be brought in allowing everyone to communicate using something called Air which is effectively the Internet using telepathy. There is a fight between those who want to use the UN Protocol and those who want to use the Gates Protocol. I think the scenes where telepathy turns out to have a crap user interface are possibly supposed to be funny but it is all rather arch.