The best books I've read this year, by order of author's surname:
- Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (review)
Mantel's follow-up to the well-received Wolf Hall (which I placed on 2009's year's best list, though with some reservations) arguably has an easier job than its predecessor. Charting the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and the role that Mantel's hero Thomas Cromwell played in it, it tells a more compressed, and more tense, story than Wolf Hall did. But if the material was more congenial for dramatization, that doesn't make the end result any less enjoyable or riveting. Bring Up the Bodies continues Wolf Hall's project of not only humanizing Cromwell but making him a standard-bearer for humanism, and perhaps even the modern way of thought, but in this volume of the trilogy there is less of a sense that Mantel is willing to let her hero get away, literally, with murder. She opens up our understanding of Cromwell's thought process in such a way as not only to shed a new light on his supposedly virtuous, forgiving attitude in Wolf Hall, but to suggest a person so controlled that they can literally suppress their own vengeful, bloodthirsty thoughts--and then unleash them when, as Cromwell does in Bring Up the Bodies, they gain enough power to indulge them. The figure that emerges from Bring Up the Bodies is very similar to Wolf Hall's mingled hero and villain--the champion of reform who thinks nothing of judicial murder--but in this second novel it's easier to see the seeds of Cromwell's downfall--both his moral dissolution and his eventual loss of favor and execution. The third part of this trilogy can't come soon enough.
- The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Rogers's Clarke-winning novel has a premise that could easily have gone very wrong: in the near future, a bioengineered virus renders pregnancy fatal in its early stages, and seems to herald the end of the human race. The eponymous heroine is a teenager who decides to dedicate her life to what she believes is humanity's last hope for survival, a procedure that will cost her life. What makes Testament work is how deftly and persuasively Rogers sketches Jessie, a teenager whose horror at what the adults who came before her have made of the world, and at her own lack of control even as she approaches adulthood, feels as principled and righteous to her as it is priggish and judgmental to us. It's Jessie's misfortune to live in a moment of history where her self-righteousness can be perceived as nobility, and where her willingness to sacrifice herself is matched by society's willingness to discard her. But Testament isn't a straight-up tragedy either. As short-sighted and given to thinking in absolutes as Jessie is, the novel leaves us in no doubt that she makes the decision to sacrifice herself freely, willingly, and with a full understanding of what it means--even as it strongly suggests that her sacrifice is unnecessary, and that humanity's salvation does not rest in her hands. The result is horrifying and masterful, the chronicle of a young woman coming to adulthood and self-awareness only to use her newfound freedom and responsibility to destroy herself.
- MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman
At first glance, it's easy to suspect MetaMaus of being little more than a handsome coffee table book, a way for Art Spiegelman to rest of his laurels for having revolutionized, in one fell stroke, both graphic novels and Holocaust literature, producing the novelistic equivalent of DVD commentary. But MetaMaus is a work in its own right, a book length interview with Spiegelman, clustered around the three central questions evoked by Maus--why comics? Why the Holocaust? Why mice?--but which through them gives readers an intimate, fascinating glimpse at the creative process that led to Maus's creation. Even if you haven't read Maus, MetaMaus is engrossing as a narrative of creation, charting the conscious, deliberate way in which Spiegelman crafted his work, the choices he made and the circumstances that imposed upon him, together working to explode the all-too-prevalent romantic notion of art emerging, fully formed, from the artist's mind, and replacing it with a vision of art as work. The artist himself, too, emerges from this narrative, and Spiegelman comes off as prickly, opinionated, and deeply protective of his work, a fascinating (if, at points, not terribly appealing) figure. To top all that off, MetaMaus is also a handsome coffee table book, beautifully crafted and containing trial sketches, examples of Spiegelman's previous work, and documents from Vladek and Anja Spiegelman's life and experiences during WWII, all of which serve to expand on both Spiegelman's narrative and Maus itself. If MetaMaus is DVD commentary, it is the kind that not only makes you appreciate the original art all the more, but turns out to be art in its own right, and it is essential to anyone who loves Maus, or who wants to know why it deserves to be loved.
- Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
Spufford's strange, difficult to categorize book is either a very dry historical novel or a very creative work of nonfiction. Stopping at various points along the history of Soviet Union, Spufford lays out the grand experiment of that nation along economic, rather than political or ideological, lines--the attempt to create an entirely planned economy, to achieve prosperity and economic growth without recourse to the free market, or indeed any market at all. Alternating between overviews of how this goal was approached and narrative chapters in which Soviet citizens--scientists, economists, apparatchiks, fixers, party leaders--interact with that goal and its consequences, Spufford is both wistful about this experiment and clear-eyed about the reasons for its failure. Red Plenty is at once a work of history, albeit a history that Western readers don't tend to know much about, especially when glimpsed through Spufford's economic perspective (as such it has inspired a fascinating, insightful roundtable at the group blog Crooked Timber, which expands on the book's discussion of history and economics from several points of view), and a work of fiction whose concerns seem particularly generic--its characters are involved in the process of worldbuilding, even if the tools, and the science, through which they build their world are economics. As uncategorizable as it is, Red Plenty is nevertheless engrossing, and a must-read for anyone interested in either Soviet history or the outer limits of what the novel format can do.
- A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (review) - Yet more proof, if any were needed, that Hardinge is one of the finest writers currently working in YA. A clever novel about tradition, class, and social conditioning, set in one of Hardinge's trademark elaborately realized fantasy worlds.
- Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island) by Margo Lanagan - Typically limpid prose, and a typically deft and idiosyncratic handling of a familiar fairy tale from Lanagan, who through alternating perspectives tells the story of a community whose women are superseded by transformed seal-wives.
- Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey - A cracking story, beautifully realized, sees an orphan pretending to the be long-lost son and heir of a wealthy English family, and beginning to suspect a darker truth about his counterpart's disappearance. Tey makes a shlocky plot work through compelling characterization and effortless writing.
- The End Specialist (The Postmortal) by Drew Magary - Perhaps the most baffling of this year's Clarke nominations, this indifferently written, lightweight novel about a world which discovers a cure for aging is the epitome of outsider SF--thoughtless, unimaginative, and prone to hysteria. That the narrator is congenitally incapable of relating to women as people, and that his story revolves around his decades-long obsession with a woman who, naturally, turns out to be the answer to his prayers, is only icing on the rancid cake.
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (review) - Eugenides's profoundly disappointing follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning Middlesex is a smug, unconvincing treatise about its title form that claims to modernize the likes of Austen and Eliot while actually producing something a great deal more regressive than anything these 19th century authors created. Complete with a bland, passive heroine, a wrong man whose wrongness stems from his crippling mental illness, and a right man whose all-consuming misogyny is matched only by Eugenides's fondness for him, The Marriage Plot falls far short of the many inventive, thought-provoking modernizations of its format that currently exist--not that Eugenides seems to be aware of this fact.
- Black Heart by Holly Black - After the first two volumes in her Curse Workers trilogy seemed to concentrate equally on the forces--criminal and legal--trying to control hero Cassel Sharpe, and on his own conviction that because of his criminal past he is unworthy of love and friendship, Black drops the ball on the latter point in her concluding volume. Black Heart seems aimed primarily at Cassel's triumph, and thus ignores the question of whether he deserves that triumph (we never find out, for example, how his brothers persuaded him to kill repeatedly for them, and don't seem to be expected to be bothered by this lack of explanation), and whether that triumph is worth the effort--a great deal of the book is taken up with Cassel finally getting together with his childhood sweetheart Lila, and we're apparently not supposed to be bothered by the fact that Lila is planning to take over her father's criminal empire and, over the course of the book, kills two people in cold blood. Black Heart is as engaging and well written as White Cat and Red Glove, but a great deal less brave in its handling of questions of morality.