Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

I read 66 books in 2008, a slight uptick from last year but nowhere near the numbers I used to rack up when I was gainfully unemployed. In terms of quality, too, 2008 showed a slight but noticeable improvement over 2007, though it still wasn't as exciting a reading year as I could have wished. Genre-wise, the books I read this year clustered mostly around SF and contemporary-set literary fiction. I've been reading less and less fantasy and historical fiction for several years now, and in 2008 I seem to have bottomed out with both genres. On the other hand, the number of nonfiction books I read this year is quadruple that of last year (which is a more impressive way of saying I read four nonfiction books) and I've started to get back in the habit of reading graphic novels and YA fiction. Of my reading resolutions, I failed to meet only one--I had planned to read something by Willa Cather, or George Orwell's less-known books, but never got around to either. The one thing I didn't set out to do that I probably should have was focus on Hugo-eligible novels, but at any rate that category interests me less than the short fiction categories.

The year's best reads, therefore, in alphabetical order of the author's surname.
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson (review)

    Incredibly, the second half of Anderson's Octavian Nothing duology is just as good, and at points even better, than the first. Following Octavian's escape from his master at the end of The Pox Party, The Kingdom of the Waves finds him enlisting in a loyalist freed slave regiment in the hopes of securing his freedom and striking a blow against what he views as the forces of tyranny. There's a lot that's remarkable about this book--Anderson's historical pastiche, which rivals and often surpasses that found in many adult historical novels, his fearless overturning of the traditionally accepted division into good and evil in the Revolutionary War, which he manages without ever forgetting the complexity of the situation in that fraught time, the expansion of the roles of the first novel's characters, in particular Octavian's foil and dark mirror Pro Bono, who in this half of the story emerges as a hero with a narrative weight equal to Octavian's--but perhaps its most stunning accomplishment is that, though we know that Octavian's cause is hopeless and his prospects grim, reading it is never less than an intense and completely absorbing experience.

  • Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi (review)

    Joining the small but elite ranks of utterly essential genre short story collections, Pump Six is a retrospective of a career that has, in the span of less than a decade, established Bacigalupi as one of the most distinctive and consistently excellent writers working today. The comparisons to Ted Chiang are as justified as they are annoying in their ubiquity, for though the two write very different science fiction, they share the important quality of being, if not quite unique in the kind of stories they write, then at least the very best at writing them. Bacigalupi's futures are grim and poverty-stricken--affluence of any sort is a thing of the past, and the Earth's diversity and plenty are waning if not already gone. His stories ask what happens after this diminishment, and the answers he comes up with are as disorienting as they are thought-provoking.

  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker

    I've written at length about every other book on this list, but this is the very first time I've even mentioned Barker's infuriating, fascinating, hilarious novel. That's because, much as I loved it, I couldn't rightly tell you why, or even what the book is actually about. In this, I'm joined by Victoria Hoyle at Eve's Alexandria and Alan DeNiro at Strange Horizons, both of whom wrote excellent reviews which unmistakably conveyed their admiration for the book without quite managing to explain its appeal. Or maybe the problem is that both Hoyle and DeNiro capture the book perfectly, but that it seems incredible, even to somone who has read it, that the book they describe--the minute examination of a few days in the lives of middle class, suburban English people who may or may not be experiencing intermittent possession by the ghost of a medieval court jester--should achieve all the superlatives heaped upon it. Darkmans is an exercise is thwarting expectations. It's long (nearly 800 pages). Its style is anything but unobtrusive--long, meandering sentences punctuated by stream-of-consciousness utterances, both of which concern themselves less with action than with describing the characters' state of mind. Its topic ought to be tedious or at the very least depressing. It should be an unholy mess, switching frenetically as it does between characters, settings, and points of view. Nevertheless, Darkmans made for one of the most effortless, exuberant, and often hilarious reading experiences I've had this year, and one of the most expertly controlled novels I've ever read. And, heartbreakingly, all of this still doesn't express what it is or why I loved it. You'll just have to read it for yourselves.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (review)

    This book, in contrast, has already been praised to high heaven by nearly everyone who read it, not to mention featuring on just about every best of year list in existence (last year's lists, but I like paperbacks). And what can I say--it's all justified. This is, indeed, a fantastic book, funny, extraordinarily well-written, effortlessly involving its readers in the travails of its protagonist, sad-sack, perpetually horny Dominican geek Oscar, as well as the history of his family and nation. Simultanously a celebration of geekery and Dominican culture and a clear-eyed examination of their worst attributes, Oscar Wao is as disquieting a read as it is pleasurable.

  • Remainder by Tom McCarthy (review)

    Were it not for Darkmans, Remainder would take the prize for the book whose presence on this list--or anyone's best of year list--seems most unlikely and inexplicable. The flat, affectless narrative of a brain-damaged accident victim who emerges from rehab incapable of any meaningful emotion, then rediscovers passion by recreating moments from his past using real people as props, it sounds too weird and too cerebral to engage its readers' emotions. But Remainder turned out to be a shocking, visceral novel, and the experience of reading it nothing short of hypnotic. McCarthy's language is deceptively simple, building a sense of menace and impending doom precisely by stifling all emotion as it describes the narrator's increasing detachment from reality, and his (and his enablers') increasing willingness to do whatever it takes to bend the world to his whim.

  • Black Man by Richard Morgan (review, with other Clarke nominees, and also)

    The great leap forward of Morgan's career, and this year's deserving winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award, Black Man (Thirteen in the US) takes everything that was good and enjoyable about Morgan's debut Altered Carbon--the impeccable plotting, the thrilling action sequences, the effortless SFnal invention and worldbuilding--and adds a truckload of interesting ideas about gender, race, nationality, prejudices founded on all three, politics, the building blocks of human society, and the eternal question of nature versus nurture. It was an absolute delight to rediscover Morgan, whom I'd gotten bored with several books ago, and to find in him an exciting and unusual SFnal voice.

  • Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (review)

    Perched right at the meeting point between the 19th century novel, concerned with morality and rationalism, and 20th century modernism, Zweig's only novel and final published work is a study of obsession, and a tragedy driven by good intentions and characters too weak to see them through. The novel begins with a young Austrian cavalry officer committing a simple faux pas when he unwittingly offends his host's daughter by asking her to dance, not realizing that she is paralyzed, then follows his attempts to make amends, each of which deepens his entanglement with the family and their dependence on him, which he both relishes and resents. Zweig describes his characters and the deepening ties between them with razor-sharp precision, bringing them vividly to life and making the inevitability of their failure to live up to their own romantic conceptions of right and wrong fascinating, and heartbreaking, to watch.
Honorable Mentions:
In years past I've dedicated a separate post to the year's worst reads, but I'm both sorry and glad to report that though I read my share of disappointing, mediocre, and just plain dull books in 2008, only one book truly went beyond bad and into the realm of books whose awfulness deserves to be enshrined and cried out from the mountaintops. So, the very worst read of 2008 was:
  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith

    It's been nearly a year since I finished reading Griffith's mystery novel, the first in a series featuring her Mary Sue-slash-superhero detective Aud Torvingen, who is beautiful, smart, deadly with weapons and her bare hands, a good cook, a fantastic gardener, a talented carpenter, an excellent dresser, and, of course, a damaged person haunted by the victims of her own badassness, and I still can't believe that a book this ridiculously awful was allowed to go to print, much less gain acclaim and warrant not one but two sequels. The mystery is plodding and obvious, the characters a gallery of stereotypes with not a single smidgeon of genuine personality to share between them, and the love story, between Aud and her femme fatale client, is characterized by the kind of turgid melodrama that would shame a junior high schooler's Harry Potter fanfic. But every single one of the novel's flaws is overshadowed by Aud, who never for a moment demonstrates that she possesses even the tiniest hint of self-awareness or a sense of humor about herself. She takes herself as seriously as the novel takes her--the grand, tragic heroine of her own life, whose triumphs and failures, loves and hates, interests and hobbies are so much more fascinating and meaningful than those of the common, ordinary people around her. The only people I would even consider recommending The Blue Place to are aspiring authors, so that they can learn how not to construct a character.
Dishonorable Mentions:

9 comments:

Kristen said...

Hmmm. I quite enjoyed Farthing and its sequal Ha'Penny, and I'm eagerly anticpating the trilogy's finale. Mind you, I recognize that both novels are lightweight, quick and easy reads despite the dark "what if". But I don't mind that. I really enjoyed both and don't feel that Farthing deserves a dishonorable mention.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I said, 2008 was a bad year for bad books, but more importantly, dishonorable mentions are reserved for books that aren't terrible (otherwise they'd be on the main list), but which I found completely readable and completely lacking in any kind of nutritional value. I thought Farthing was fun for the first 50 pages, then lost interest as both the characters and the plot outlived their usefulness (I wrote about it a little here). I didn't suffer by reading it, but I didn't get anything from the experience either.

Anonymous said...

Well, since we are at opposite ends of the literary spectrum when it comes to the Blue Place, I am unsure of how much to trust your judgment on the authors you have recommended. So I think second opinions are in order and I'll have to rely on those whose opinions seemed based in literary experience and understanding. Or, perhaps they're just folks who share similar viewpoints. Whichever, I a minclined to bow their way on literary recommendations.

duff

Col said...

Seeing that you mention Colson Whitehead, I would recommend hunting out his novel "Apex Hides the Hurt" which I read a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Duff:

Well, I certainly appreciate you taking the time to let me know about that, and especially in such a respectful manner. I think you're missing out on some great books, though.

Col:

I gave Whitehead's other novels a look after finishing and loving The Intuitionist, but wasn't particularly enticed by either. His upcoming novel, Sag Harbor, however, sounds interesting.

rhbee1 said...

"An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azalea blossoms. Nearly midnight. I had been walking for over an hour,covering four or five miles. I wasn't tired. I wasn't sleepy.

You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match."

Thus in two quick paragraphs does Nicola Griffith begin the story of Aud. A context and back story - The Blue Place.

Perhaps, if you had started this series as I had, by reading Always, the third novel in the series, first, then Stay, the second in the series, and finally, the beginning, The Blue Place, you wouldn't have been so quick to dismiss what turns out to be a thoroughly engrossing trio of novels about a soul lost and then gained, of the growth of character through the discovery of what is essential to human joy, love, and about the meaning in the simplicity of each novel's title.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Oh, lord, you've just given me flashbacks.

"You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match."

No, no I wouldn't. No actual human being would think something like this, nor expect others to think it of them. Seriously, when was the last time you saw someone and thought 'I bet her bad dreams are of the first man she killed'? This is an emo passage. It front-loads the character's emotional baggage, thus ensuring that the very first thing we think about her is 'oh, she's damaged!' It tells, but doesn't show, but because what it tells is so shocking (so over the top?) it bludgeons us into feeling sorry for her, and maybe a little bit impressed by her pain, which is frankly the thrust of the entire novel.

It could very well be that the second and third Aud books improve on the first, but I'm frankly a little miffed at the implication that not having sought them out is somehow a failure on my part. Do you honestly think it's reasonable to expect a person, having had a thoroughly miserable time with the first book in a series, to spend their hard-earned money and precious free time giving that series not only a second but a third chance? Also, I note that you haven't said that the sequels improve on The Blue Place or correct its many flaws, merely that you liked the series as a whole. If you liked The Blue Place then it's not likely our opinions of its sequels will track either, and people who had a similar reaction to the first book as I did have told me that the latter books suffer from much the same flaws.

rhbee1 said...

"This is an emo passage."

As you so aptly point out, yes, we are immediately brought into her story. My point too. And as this novel lets us see, she is damaged goods as result of a world that really doesn't care about us humans, a world that can only be made better by what we bring to it.

Aud brings anger and doubt, brings a need to make things better and an unwillingness to believe things will change.

As I pointed out in my first comment, reading Aud's story in Always really does make you want to find out how she gets there. For me, more than anything else, the tone of the storytelling is what drew me in. It's as though each thought was measured in the same way a fighter watches her opponent for an opening, the way tai chi uses the attacker to claim victory. So when she loses her lover at the story's end, we know it is her own weakness/hubris that brought about this result.

Which leads the patient reader to Stay and finally, Always.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

First, I'm going to have to ask you to desist from the first person plural while describing The Blue Place's effects on its readers. Nothing you wrote in your reply applies to me.

Second, emo is not a good thing. Emo is an attitude that says that not only is your pain special and grander than anyone else's pain, but that feeling it makes you special and grander than anyone else. It's a permissible attitude in teenagers, but Aud is thirty-ish, so what's her excuse? And what is the novel's excuse for validating this attitude, such as when it suggests that Aud's grief over Julia, whom she has known for a few weeks, should take precedence over the grief felt by Julia's mother, whom I'll remind you has already lost one child to senseless violence?

Third, I'll ask this again: if you read a book and found it thoroughly unenjoyable, would you truly feel obligated to seek out its sequels just in case they improve on the original?

Fourth, though it may be true that Stay and Always improve on The Blue Place (though as I said, the fact that you don't seem to see anything wrong with the first book suggests to me that I won't see anything right with the last two), it seems very strange to argue that the proper way to read the series is from end to beginning, and that having started from the first volume is somehow a failing on my part.

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