I am unlikely to finish any more books this year, as the one I am currently reading is very long and involved. So I thought I would rank the ones that I have finished this year from best to worst (there is a lot of Jack Vance in the list - sorry):
Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev): This is probably among the most important novels ever written - a work of the most profound empathy and insight, and a wonderful antidote to the fragmentation, bad faith and factionalism of modern culture. If you've never read it, do so at once.
Ecce and Old Earth (Jack Vance): There are problems with the structure of this novel, but I don't remember having enjoyed reading a book as much as I did this one in many years. The central section was the literary equivalent of a dinner at The French Laundry. Just sublime.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert Caro): As a longstanding fan of Robert Caro's work I was always reticent to read this, knowing that it would likely come to obsess me. It did. Don't read it unless you want a 1700 page book about town planning in New York between 1930-1970 to take over your life for two months, causing you to forget mealtimes and appointments and become an annoying disappointment to your spouse.
The Plague (Albert Camus): As I wrote in my Goodreads review: "This novel was apparently understood on its publication as being an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France (and my edition has an afterword by Tony Judt which goes to some lengths to justify this reading of the text). But if indeed Camus himself intended it to be read this way, the fact that it resonates so strongly with readers during the 'Covid era' is testament to a great novelist's insights into the human condition, which can give his work new meanings and interpretations, and fresh value, almost a century later. It is a moving monument to the power of literature that Camus said more of what needed to be said about Covid in the 1940s than all of the combined scientific, sociological and political treatises of 2020-2021 put together."
Emphyrio (Jack Vance): I wrote a longish quasi-review of this book here, and have nothing really to add to it, except to reiterate that it really is science fiction of the highest rank - the equal of The Book of the New Sun, if much more compact.
Wyst: Alastor 1716 (Jack Vance): This is an interesting companion piece to Emphyrio, as it has a similar subject - what might be called the human condition under collectivism. Like Emphyrio, it has an emotional depth that is often absent from Vance's work; you really care about poor Jantiff and his dogged resistance to misfortune. It's just a shame that the final act feels a little rushed.
The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien): What can be said abut The Hobbit that has not been said? This is probably the 10th time I've read it. I can confirm that it is still in working order.
The Coming of the Third Reich (Richard Evans): This is popular, narrative history at its finest - rigorous, but easy to read and lacking academic fustiness. The story retains its capacity to shock: political violence destroys democracy, and the lack of a shared national narrative can be fatal to a state's survival.
The Third Reich in Power (Richard Evans): See above. If the story of how the Nazis came to power is brutal and horribly plausible, the tale of what they did with it prior to the war itself is terrifying. What happened to the German Jews - the slow ratchet of isolation, disempowerment, and dispossession - simply cannot lose its power, no matter how much the word 'Nazi' has become denuded of its meaning through overuse. It's hair-raising, and Evans does it justice with a masterfully calm and unexaggerated retelling.
The State (Anthony de Jasay): De Jasay's account of the state's inevitable growth is genuinely sui generis and, in its own way, heretical. It is the political philosophy equivalent of outsider art. Anybody genuinely interested in libertarian thought should read it.
On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (Bertrand de Jouvenel): A great companion piece to de Jasay's The State, this is a very different book - literary, dramatic, sweeping - but similarly iconoclastic. I was struck when reading them by the quality that 'lived experience' gives to works of political philosophy; these men cut from very different cloth from that of the modern academic, who has seen nothing but lecture theatres and classrooms and his own pleasant office. In Communist Hungary and Vichy France, respectively, they had experienced first hand the phenomena which they were addressing, and it gives their work an urgency that is impossible to fake.
Araminta Station (Jack Vance): An unusual book, that slightly awkwardly slips from comedy of manners to police procedural to interstellar travelogue, producing the sense that it was rather being made up as Vance went along. Luckily, the writing, characters and worldbuilding are so good that you can readily forgive it its sins.
Marune: Alastor 933 (Jack Vance): Another unusual book, which few authors would have the sheer gall to write. It is as though Vance deliberately challenged himself to create as implausible and dislikable a culture as he could think of, and turn it into the compelling subject for a novel regardless. He is equal to the task.
Trullion: Alastor 2262 (Jack Vance): As with all of Vance's best work, there is something profound going on beneath the surface of this tale, which at first glance presents itself as an enjoyable romp, but hints that there are very bleak, dark things in the human heart.
The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (Christopher Caldwell): This is genuine balls-to-the-wall iconoclasm - what being countercultural really looks like in 2021. Nobody comes away unscathed, whether Hugh Hefner, Ronald Reagan, LBJ or Martin Luther King, and it is written with such bile, directed at so many targets, that at times it seems even the author himself can't quite keep track of who he is supposed to be skewering at any given moment. A book to blow away cobwebs.
Short Breaks in Mordor: Dawns and Departures of a Scribbler's Life (Peter Hitchens): Peter Hitchens is a better writer than his more famous brother, and has many more interesting things to say, but I was slightly annoyed that this collection of his superlative travel writing is really only half a book - most of the essays were printed in both the Mail on Sunday and American Conservative, and for some reason it was thought best to provide the two almost identical versions for each.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem (Joan Didion): This is a very mixed bag. I am a big fan of Didion's prose; there are few writers indeed who have devoted so much care and effort to the construction of sentences on a page. Yet many of the essays in the collection are now mere historical curios: does anybody care now what Joan Baez had to say about the war in Vietnam, or what the hippies of Haight-Ashbury thought they were doing as the 1960s collapsed around their ears? Oddly, the best of the bunch is the short piece on John Wayne, which ought to be less relevant still, but is as touching and entertaining as non-fiction writing can be.
The Second World Wars (Victor Davis Hanson): I have read a lot of books about the Second World War, and this stands out for achieving something I don't think I have previously encountered: explaining carefully, in detail, why it was the unglamorous stuff (logistics, geography, industrial capacity, cost-benefit analysis), rather than generalship or fighting ability, that won the war.
Batavia's Graveyard (Mike Dash): I'm not sure that this book tells us anything about the human condition, or anything, but it sure is a lurid and exciting tale. What happens when a gnostic psychopath finds himself in charge of the survivors of a shipwreck hundreds of miles from authority of any kind? Well, very bad things indeed.
Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural (Algernon Blackwood): "The Man Whom the Trees Loves" is the standout in terms of literary quality, but the GPA of the many short stories contained in this collection is pretty high. Blackwood reveals himself to be more than just a pulp writer, but a lyrical and expressive prose stylist with far more interesting ideas than, for example, HP Lovecraft.
Throy (Jack Vance): A sadly rather forgettable end to the Cadwal series, but an entertaining romp all the same.
The Turn of the Screw (Henry James): Sadly, the modern reader who comes to this novella brings so much horror baggage to it that the tale really lacks the capacity to scare them. What the story hints at is really very disturbing, but ultimately the feeling is one of disappointment.
Life at the Bottom (Theodore Dalrymple): Dalrymple is a brilliant writer, and this collection of anecdotes and musings on his many years spent as a psychotherapist in prisons and hospitals has the weight of vast experience and insight behind it. But God, it's a depressing read, made all the more so for the fact that nobody who ought to read and pay attention to it will.
A War Like No Other (Victor Davis Hanson): This is a faintly dissatisfying book, which can't seem to make up its mind who its audience is: lay people, or scholars? Perhaps the problem is that I wanted a narrative account of the war, and should have just gone ad fontes to Thucydides himself.
Taking Rights Seriously (Ronald Dworkin): A re-read, it probably being 12 years since I read it last. Dworkin remains arrogant, frustrating, and wrong, but endearingly so; there is something truly quixotic about his quest to get to the bottom of things through sheer force of reason - a true example of 20th century liberalism's finest qualities.
The Conservative Mind (Russel Kirk): This, ultimately, reads like what it is: the ravings of a very gifted but naive young scholar, fresh from writing a PhD, telling you about his academic crushes. Great bibliography and footnotes, though.
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Christopher Lasch): Lasch is, I understand, undergoing something of a renaissance or reassessment, and I am sympathetic to his basic argument. But I just can't say I read this book on the edge of my seat.
Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss): I am not ashamed to say this went over my head for the most part. I mean, I've read Derrida, Voegelin, Jellinek, Hobbes, Austin. I can do impenetrable. But the meaning of this really did elude me.
Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir (Mark Lanegan): I love Mark Lanegan's music and the era in which he was making it, but his junkie reminiscences are pretty self-pitying and self-indulgent, like junkies so often are.
Law and the Modern Mind (Jerome Frank): We live in Jerome Frank's world, in many ways, but the psychobabble which accompanies his observations about adjudication are trite and simplistic, and this book is really now of historical interest only, for all that it was apparently once influential.
A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (Antonin Scalia and others): This is really just a longish law journal article penned by Scalia, with a few rather banal responses from bigwigs in the American legal academy. It's only when Dworkin enters the fray that we feel as though we are getting somewhere, but that's really just the last 10 pages of the book.
The Genius of Birds (Jennifer Ackerman): I was so up for reading a book about bird intelligence - I can't think of a person who would be a more receptive audience for it than me - but perhaps because of my expectations being too high, I found this to be rather boring. Too many popular science books neglect the importance of good writing, and this is a prime example.
The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Robin Lane Fox): What is there to say, other than that there is an interesting book to be written on the subject of "Truth and Fiction in the Bible", but this isn't it?
Pile: Petals from St Klaed's Computer (Brian Aldiss): The art in this book is wonderful, but the poetry accompanying it is appalling doggerel - like something written by Adrian Mole. I mean, "By hidden ways and secret circumbendibus/they reach the Oracle, all tremulous." Come on Brian, you wrote Helliconia, for fuck's sake, man!
The Last Days of New Paris (China Mieville): This is bad stuff from Mieville. Absolute minimal effort, titanically uninteresting characters even by his own low standards, and slapdash, monotonous writing. A phoned-in effort that reads like it was written to fulfil a contractual obligation - or just as a vehicle for Mieville to show off how much he knows about 1920s French art.
On Grand Strategy (John Lewis Gaddis): I had to put this down after a few chapters. It is, frankly, the work of a complete and utter pseud.
Ness (Robert Macfarlane): This is supposed to be a kind of "prose-poem" set in Orford Ness and featuring weird nature spirits. If that sounds appealing in theory, let me reassure you that in practice it is just shit - pretentious drivel from start to finish. Avoid.