'Best book of the year' is a poor claim in January, so I'll declare Joan Didion's 'The Year of Magical Thinking' one of the best books I've ever read. This is a slim book about grief, which is a poor advertisement for this moving, intelligent, emotional and pragmatic memoir. Joan's husband dies suddenly while her adult daughter lies near-death in hospital. The minutes and months following John's death are described in a loose narrative but it was the brilliant clarity of her self-awareness, reflecting on her experience of grieving and loss and self-delusion that was so devestating and such a privilege to read. Joan being Joan Didion, she researches and investigates the science of grief, the psychology and literature of death, and reflects and disects with the grace and skill of a brilliant and well-trained mind. She goes mad when John dies, so she says. She writes, much later: "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.... We might expect that we will be prostrate, insonsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes." I don't know anything about grief; thank goodness I don't, but now I have a perspective on it, and I walked in the world with a greater sensitivity to the fragility of things for a time.
Two sci fi books filled the gap to the end of January. I've read Robert Reed before and remember the flavour of his novels: dense, serious, conceptual, clever, moral. 'Down the Bright Way' is a grand concept: a portal between all imaginable alternate Earths is the pathway for a million-year journey by the Founders, looking for the Makers (sci fi always sounds like complete dross in summary). Big concepts, brilliantly wierd imagined Earths, all of it reduced by Robert's inability to write characters I gave a stuff about. So it was mildly enjoyable, and forgettable.
I was embarassed to read 'Blind Lake' in public - one of those classic sci fi paperback covers with goggle-eyed aliens in an eerie landscape, no less. Turns out the cover doesn't do the book justice, and this was a better read than Reed's book. Never heard of Robert Charles Wilson, but he's been a finalist in the Hugo (according to the cover) and can write an engaging yarn. In the very near future we discover a barely-understood technology which gives us a window to spy on a distant alien world. The scenario of the story is surprisingly domestic: scientists working at the research site - a small town at this stage - are put into unannounced quarantine and people behave like people do under stress. Just a terrible cover.
I need a non-sci fi option now, so I'm grazing.