Now, science fiction books. For it is Hugo-nominating season, when everyone planning to go to the Worldcon ought to figure out what the five best SF novels published this year that they've read have been, and the three people* who read new short fiction also get to nominate short fiction at three different lengths. Doing this with any competence as all is a habit costly in both coin and bookcase space, since the 'published' is overwhelmingly 'published in US hardback'.
The pair of books which absolutely jumped out at me this year, and which I've been proselytising enthusastically, is Catherynne Valente's In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice. It's absolutely marvellous in its post-modern tangling and intertwining of beautifully-written plot, stories of monsters told by story-telling monsters, a travelogue to beat all travelogues, a work of imagination comparable to (if obviously strongly inspired by) the Arabian Nights, everyone should read it as soon as they can, and it's published in 2006 so irrelevant for this year's Hugo.
SF is a literature of series; it's a lot of work to invent a world, you might as well set several books there, and for a literature read significantly by people capable of reading at ridiculous pace, eighteen-month publication gaps may be the only way to assure pacing. Which means there are a lot of excellent novels which it doesn't make great sense to nominate as a 'best novel'.
There's also the ubiquitous problem that a book prize should award a book rather than an author. When I look at books that are eligible, I find an annoying number of perfectly competent works by authors with vast reputations to trade on. Iain Banks deserves a prize for Use of Weapons, but he didn't even make the Hugo ballot that year; Ken Macleod deserves a prize for his amazing Fall Revolution quartet, but that's eight years old now. Matter and The Night Sessions are Banks' and Macleod's offerings for this year, and neither really sticks in my brain.
Terry Pratchett's Nation clearly gets a vote - the standard must be 'would get a vote even if by an unknown author', though likely I'd not have read it were it by an unknown author. It's a beautifully humane story; it made me cry, which very little does.
Brandon Sanderson completed his Mistborn trilogy this year. It's beautifully extruded fantasy product, pushed with a golden ram by a master craftsman through dies of polished diamond, the second and third books managing to be complete in themselves and to extend a complicated story and an equally complicated magic system in new and exciting directions; The Hero of Ages probably deserves a vote even as the third in a series.
There's Anathem, of course. Nine hundred pages of Platonic philosophy with monks, space aliens and ruminations on the nature of causality, but given an unquantifiable boost by that 'by the author of Snow Crash'.
Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains does good things with the grimness of warriors, and has a single paragraph that clinches a nomination by reminding the reader how lucky he is to live in a world where swords are to be found in cases in museums rather than kept from finding scabbards in his vitals.
I've got a month to get hold of and read books that I've missed and that ought to be nominated: any recommendations? Jo Walton's Half a Crown and Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children came out this year though I read them while they were being written, and so have strong and carefully considered two-year-old opinions of a version that isn't the one published; I'm not sure I can read the published versions of books I've read in beta in a way that means I could sensibly nominate.
* I know there are more than three people who read new short SF fiction reading this post. Shush.