This year I followed Amy’s lead from last year and kept a log of the books I read. Apart from being a fun exercise, and making it easier to remember what I read and when, it gives me a natural opportunity to write a “best of the year” post.
So first, some statistics: this year’s haul included a total of 101 books fully read, plus about 20 more partially read but abandoned. (Not all because they were bad; some because I wasn’t in the mood, or whatever. And the worst of the lot were actually finished.) Of the fully read, there were 38 SF, 26 fantasy, 18 lit fic, 13 nonfiction; only 15 of them were re-reads. 6 were YA, 5 middle-grade. I would say that 30 of them were good enough to recommend, with the ones below especially noteworthy. There were plenty of mediocre ones, but only one terrible enough to make me want to claw my eyes out of my head. And I added two writers, Kazuo Ishiguro and Theodora Goss, to my list of “writers whose work I will read the moment it comes out,” an unusually good crop for the year.
And so: Twenty books worth reading and one worth setting on fire.
For the overall best thing I read this year, I would definitely have to go with Kazuo Ishiguro’s books. The hard part is choosing which. The Remains of the Day is amazing because almost nothing seems to happen – the entire plot is an aging butler in postwar England going on a road trip and thinking over his life – yet one simply cannot stop reading it, seeing further and further into his insular world. But his more recent Never Let Me Go is one of the best works of SF written in the past decade. I won’t explain its plot; this is one of the few books which works by letting you gradually uncover what it’s about, and the gradual discovery is part of the joy of reading it. But he’s grappled with a serious, hard-SF premise, blended seamlessly into his characters’ richly felt world. If you only pick one book to read off this list, I would pick one of these two.
My favorite new author (or at least, new novelist) for the year is N. K. Jemisin, with two books out, the first two of a fantasy trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. I think she did a very good job of making the setting feel distinctly new and unusual. The stories are driven by a society which is monotheistic by virtue of having physically captured and enslaved all but one of its gods, which has tied that in with its political structure, and which is clearly held together by duct tape, chicken wire, and violence. And then (of course) things go wrong.
Several other authors had some great works which I encountered this year. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of capturing the tragedy of the end of a golden moment in history; his new novel Under Heaven, set in China during the An Lushan rebellion, and his earlier The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in Spain on the eve of the Reconquista,* are both top-notch and worth the reads. Theodora Goss has a bunch of excellent new stories out this year, but my favorites were in her 2006 anthology In the Forest of Forgetting, which really made me fall in love with her writing. It ranges from slow, quiet fairy tales to vanishing professors, but the parts I liked the best were the stories most influenced by her upbringing in Hungary. I always look forward to her new releases. Shaun Tan has Tales from Outer Suburbia out, and I find his ability to mix writing with illustration fascinating. (His earlier The Arrival is simply extraordinary has doesn’t have a single word in it) Ian MacDonald’s new book, The Dervish House, is a bright and vivid picture of a near-future Istanbul, and has a great plot driving it. And in the categories of “people you’ve never heard of,” Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill is worth mention: not necessarily deep, but a great and fun read. Think “Groundhog Day” meets “Starship Troopers,” with a hint of “The Seven Samurai.”
Two other books are worth noting as being exceptionally good but also flawed, so you’re likely to either love them or hate them. Connie Willis finally released her two-part novel, Blackout / All Clear, a time travel novel set during the Blitz, which I think may well be one of the definitive works on the subject of mundane heroism. What’s odd about it is that the time travel part, and in fact pretty much everything involving the characters from the future, is kind of boring; the characters are cardboard, their motivations hard to believe, their arcs uninspiring. But when reading it, I found my attention drawn almost entirely to the secondary characters, and these were richly realized, together with an absolutely extraordinary capture of the setting of London during the War. I can’t help feeling that if she had simply ditched the SFnal elements and written a straight-up historical novel, this would have been an absolutely extraordinary work. As it was, I did find this book exceptionally enjoyable, but did find myself wishing that a lot of the scenes would just end faster. If you like historical fiction, you will probably like this book a lot.
Ted Chiang’s novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects was also released this year, and this is a strange one to discuss because it is absolutely brilliant. The story is beautifully written, it grapples with some very complex issues (what are the lines between AI’s and people? Especially when one has to raise AI’s like one does children?), it balances character and story better than he’s ever done, I have no end of good things to say about it. The one thing I didn’t like was the ending; it just sort of stopped. I feel like I just read the first half of the best new SF novel of the year, with no chance of a second half.
Finally, there are classics which I read (or re-read) this year and just wanted to point out, because if you haven’t read these, you should. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books; Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead; Joe Haldeman’s Forever War; Dorothy Sayers’ Wimsey/Vane books**; and Pablo Neruda’s Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancíon Desesperada, which is beautiful and which is available in an excellent dual-language text.
* Strictly speaking, these books aren’t set in those two settings; as he’s discussed in essays, he prefers to write “historically inspired fantasies,” where the setting is basically the same but where one is not constrained to write the words and deeds of actual people. Upon reading the books, I’d say that it makes good sense as a writing choice, and it’s close enough that the books feel more like historicals than like fantasies.
** That’s Strong Poison, Have his Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon, in that order. It is definitely important to read these in order.
My non-fiction list is shorter, both because I read less of it and because most of what I read was ultimately not that good. But two books did stand out as worth reading.
On the subject of history, we have Mark R. Smith’s The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Dieties in Ancient Israel, a study of the emergence of monotheism in the Near East during the late Bronze and early Iron age. There’s a “standard story” you may have heard about how the Jews were monotheists from the days of Abraham and Sumer, and strongly separated from their surrounding cultures. Historians and archaeologists have known for quite some time that this story is basically bollocks; during the late Bronze period (ca. 1500BCE) there appears to have been a culturally fairly uniform West Semitic culture, out of which Judaism emerged. This book in particular traces the evolution of the shifts in religion (as opposed to the process by which the Jews became culturally separated from nearby city-dwellers, which is another interesting topic) and how the local polytheism evolved first into monolatry, and then into monotheism. It’s a scholarly work, not a general-public intro, so it expects a certain amount of background from its readers and can be quite dense at times; but if you’re interested in how modern religion came to be, it’s an excellent read. (Although NB that part of the background it expects is that you are familiar with the general outlines of the history of the period; this book doesn’t spend its time arguing that monotheism doesn’t date back to the Stone Age, it figures you’ve already gone through that discussion)
From the science side, I just finished reading Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene, a fascinating general-public work on the current state of our understanding of the neurological underpinnings of literacy. I found it absolutely amazing; I had no idea how much we already knew about the subject. The book focuses on our understanding of the stages of reading between pixel sensing and word recognition. (The later phases, of sentence assembly and meaning extraction, he doesn’t cover) The overall system we have in our brains is fascinating: there appears to be a single pipeline that goes as far as recognizing the invariant shapes of letters, which is using the same circuits as are used to detect the invariant shapes of objects; and then the pipeline branches into a lexicographic pipeline, which does word recognition based on what’s basically a dictionary lookup followed by breakdowns into stems and looking those up, and a phonological pipeline which tries to sound out the word. These run in parallel and the first one to complete (which depends on the word, its familiarity, its presentation, and so on) kicks off the meaning detection and sentence parsing process. This in turn leads to discussions of how we learn to read, abnormalities of the reading system, and so on. He goes into plenty of detail and leaves you with a real sense for the amazing things modern neuroscience is doing.
Every reader has a list of writers whose work they know they will like a priori, before they even know what the book is about. It tends to be a short list; the list of writers whose books one will probably like is considerably longer. The first list is special in that one can merrily dig through the author’s backlist, hunting for new-to-oneself works in the happy expectation that they will be treasures. One can even keep some of their books unread, on hand, as insurance against the day when a good, new book would be the perfect solution to all of life’s problems.
Coming in to this year I had three living authors on my short list (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ted Chiang, Haruki Murakami) as well as a few more on the list with a minor restriction (Guy Gavriel Kay, with a check on the subject matter; Lois McMaster Bujold, SF but not fantasy).* This year, I was fortunate enough to find two authors that I appear to be able to add to the list without restriction. I mentioned two of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s books above, but I’ve actually read four of his books this year, and am getting my hands on the rest. More than perhaps any author currently writing, Ishiguro has the ability to enmesh a reader so thoroughly in a character’s world that one feels a sense of epiphany – that one has not only seen their world, but seen it more deeply than they themselves have seen it.
My other new writer for the year is Theodora Goss. Goss is writing what feels like a very old breed of fantasy, (fairy tales, Victoriana, etc) crossed with a very modern (postmodern?) sensibility. One ends up with tales like “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” with the daughters of several of the infamous mad scientists of 19th-century literature sharing a household, and deciding what to do with their lives, or slightly surreal pieces like “Sleeping with Bears,” about a very ordinary young woman who marries a bear. But the ones I like the best are the ones like “Letters from Budapest” which most vividly evoke the atmosphere of Central Europe. Perhaps it’s my family history; for all that our most recent stop was in Israel, and that I’ve grown up in the US, the culture I grew up in was ultimately that of the Rhine and Danube, and those stories and settings evoke all the half-remembered memories and tales of a distant childhood.
* You may note that these authors are decidedly different in their styles, literariness, and so on. That’s fine; this isn’t a list of The Greatest Writers In The Universe, it’s a list of writers whose works I know I will be excited to read.
Finally, this year had one book that really merits a “worst of the year.” That would be Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t really know where to begin with my opinion of this book – is it bad because of the torture porn? Is it bad because of the entirely gratuitous and graphic rape scenes, whose impact on the protagonist seems to be completely forgotten as soon as (gratuitous and graphic) revenge is taken? Is it bad because the book has goddamned product placements in it? Is it bad because if you actually think about the resolution of the main mystery, several people’s behavior makes little to no sense? I don’t know. If you value your sanity, I suggest you don’t try to find out. While this isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read (I think that honor has to go to Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger), it’s definitely a fair competitor.