Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 44 books in 2015, about the same as last year and still not where I'd like to be (I'm still working on what might yet be number 45, but I doubt I'll make it in the three hours and change I have left).  About a third of the books I read were science fiction, a much higher proportion than usual due to Hugo reading and some other writing projects I'm working on.  Though I've found some great new discoveries, it's not a ratio I'd like to maintain.  In 2016, I'd like to get back to reading more mainstream fiction, not to mention fantasy.  I also read quite a few short story collections (and an even larger number of uncollected short stories during my search for Hugo nominees early in the year), which I find more pleasing--I used to be a great lover of the short story collection, and I seem to have fallen out of the habit in recent years.  It's good to get back to it.

Highlights of the reading year include going back to The Lord of the Rings for the first time in nearly a decade (I storified my thoughts about the book and its legacy here), and further progress through Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels and stories.  I also reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in honor of the BBC's miniseries adaptation, and found it to be just as delightful and clever as I had remembered.  I made some forays into the bibliographies of authors that I've heard about for years but had never tried for myself, such as C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner, which read a little too much like Shōgun in space for my liking) and Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vor Game and Mirror Dance, both of which I liked--the latter especially).

Going into 2016, there are a few reading projects I'd like to get to.  I've been thinking of rereading Dune, which got a lot of attention this year for its 50th anniversary, and which I haven't read since my teens (I probably still won't bother with any of the sequels, though).  I'd also like to finally finish reading Gormenghast--I read the first book in my early twenties and found it stunning but also exhausting; I couldn't quite face going on to the concluding volumes in the trilogy.  Most of all, and as usual, I'd like to read more, read more widely, and read more of the right stuff.  I have quite a few enticing books in my TBR pile--several of them 2015 releases that I'd like to get to before the Hugo voting deadline--and if I get to a sizable portion of them, I think I'll probably have a pretty good time.

Best Books of 2015:
  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (review)

    I haven't yet read Cho's extremely well-received debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (though it's right at the top of that TBR pile I mentioned), but if it's anything like her short story collection, I don't doubt that it will be a blast.  Cho's writing is smart, funny, and heartfelt, combining fantasy with elements of the romance genre and a fascinating portrait of Malaysian life, whether back home or as ex-pats in the UK.  The sense of place that her stories evoke--where that place might be Malaysia, Britain, the spirit world, or a colony on the moon--is powerful and immediately convincing, and the thread tying her stories together is the way in which their origins and culture guide and define her characters, teaching them how to see the world and how to live in it.

  • The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III

    If you'd told me a few weeks ago that one of my favorite reads of 2015 would be Neil Gaiman's latest addition to the Sandman mythos, I would have called you crazy.  I picked up Overture almost out of the sense of obligation, and mostly out of curiosity.  I wasn't expecting Gaiman--whose writing I've found a little samey in recent years--to find new notes in a story that found its perfect and very decisive conclusion decades ago (especially in light of his previous addition, Endless Nights, which was the very definition of inessential).  But Overture turned out to be stunning--first, visually, with Williams delivering art that finally lives up to the title character's role as the lord of dreams and imagination.  Every page here is a wealth of imagery and color, nearly an assault on the senses if it weren't all done with such care and attention to detail.  But the story, too, is a delight, a sort of prequel to the Sandman story, which explains what Dream was doing that left him vulnerable to the decades-long imprisonment that kicks off the saga's events.  At points it veers into fanservice--there are details here that connect to loose ends in A Doll's House and A Game of You that didn't really need to be tied up--but the core of the story expands our understanding of Dream and his world in a way that reminded me why I found the original Sandman saga so compelling.  It's got me wanting to revisit this whole world all over again.

  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

    I can't remember the last book that left me feeling as exhilarated and energized as The Blazing World, and as desperate to press it into the hands of everyone I know.  On its surface, the story feels like a very familiar kind of complicated--an aging artist, convinced that her career has been stymied by her gender and the art world's misogyny, partners with three men to present her work under their name.  When she comes forward to claim her work as her own, the response--from the art world and her collaborators--is complex and causes unexpected ripples.  The story is told through document fragments, interviews, and competing narratives.  But the heart of The Blazing World isn't in its story, but in the fervent, overpowering personality of its main character, a difficult, mercurial, fiercely intelligent woman who is equal parts bully and victim, and whose passion for art and creation shines through every page of this book.  Nearly every character, in fact, is an artist of one sort or another, and The Blazing World is largely about how they see their work, how they create it, and how they feel about putting it into the world.  To read it is to become caught up in a storm of creativity and furious, churning thought, and it's hard not to turn the last page and want to join in the adventure of making something out of nothing, and hoping that someone will see it for what it is.

  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

    I'm indebted to Nina Allan for introducing me to Whiteley, whose future work I anticipate with bated breath.  The Beauty is an eerie, claustrophobic novella that combines post-apocalypse, body horror, and an examination of gender roles in a way that is both horrifying and seductive.  A colony of lonely men in a world in which women have all died are overjoyed to be joined by a troupe of beautiful, accommodating women.  So overjoyed, in fact, that they fervently ignore everything that is strange and offputting about these women, who may not even be women at all.  As the men begin to experience physical changes in response to their "wives," they have to decide what's more important to them--their identity as men (and as human beings), or the love that their new partners offer them.  Utterly disturbing but also impossible to stop thinking about once you put it down, The Beauty was one of the finest works of genre I read last year.
Honorable mentions:
  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link - This would probably be in the best books list proper if I hadn't read some of the best stories here--such as "I Can See Right Through You," "Valley of the Girls," and "Light"--before picking it up.  But it's great to revisit those stories, and to discover some of the other pieces here that were new to me, and which are typically excellent.

  • Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee - Once again, I've been reading Lee's short fiction piecemeal for years, but it was only when I saw all these stories together in one volume that I realized what an amazing writer he is, imaginative and skilled with a phrase.  I'm really looking forward to his debut novel next year.
I'm glad to say that hardly any book I read in 2015 was bad enough to qualify for a worst books list, and the one exception was so painful and disappointing that I'd really rather not write about it.  So instead, let's have a discussion of how that disappointment came to be ever-so-slightly mollified.
  • The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

    Earlier this year, I read Pratchett's Raising Steam, the penultimate Discworld novel and the last aimed at adult readers.  When I finished it, I was so angry that I didn't even know what to write, and so ended up writing nothing.  I didn't even know on whose behalf I should be angrier--Pratchett himself, whose many accomplishments deserved so much better than to be capped off with a barely-publishable and often offensive mess, or his fans, who were apparently expected to keep handing over money no matter how degraded the material appearing under Pratchett's name had become.

    So I'm very grateful for The Shepherd's Crown, and for the fact that I've been able to put my decades-long love affair with Pratchett's writing to rest on a more positive note, rather than end it with the sour disappointment of Raising Steam.  To be clear, The Shepherd's Crown is far from Pratchett at his best, and though the book's afterword tries to blame this on the fact that it was left as only a first draft at the time of his death, it's clear that the problems afflicting it run deeper and are similar to the ones that marred much of his writing in the last five years (including, unfortunately, the sad curdling of his liberalism, which began in Snuff, and here results in some oddly regressive attitudes towards gender roles).  But like most of the Tiffany Aching novels, it benefits from a strong, wistful sense of place, and from the dominant personalities of its witch characters.  It's a strange coincidence that the final Discworld novel ended up being the one in which Pratchett laid to rest one of his most iconic characters, but to its credit the book doesn't coast on that borrowed significance.  The chapters depicting Granny Weatherwax's death and its quiet, orderly aftermath are some of the most moving in the book, especially as they bring Tiffany, who started the series mourning for her grandmother, who had loomed as large in her life as Granny did for so many Discworld readers, full circle.  The actual story is, unfortunately, rather thin (it's here that the book's being a draft probably comes most into play), but the emotional highlights still hit home.  If The Shepherd's Crown is not quite the reminder we needed of why Pratchett was such an important writer to so many of us, it is at least a good way to say goodbye.


baeraad said...

To be honest, I think Pratchett's liberalism started getting frayed around the edges far earlier than Snuff, though it's true that that was the point where it became impossible to ignore it anymore. I like to think of it as Old Smart Rich White Guy syndrome - smart, rich white guys often start out as quite liberal, but the older (and richer) they get, the more convinced they often seem to become of the general awesomeness of smart, rich white guys, and the more annoyed they get with people who aren't as smart, rich or white questioning the wisdom and good intentions of the smart, rich white guys. Ken Follet seems to me to be another sufferer of that syndrome.

Raising Steam I borrowed from the library and couldn't even get into - I didn't even get far enough to get offended by anything, there was just this tangible sense of snide smugness hanging over it that put my teeth on edge (and such a sense usually means that I'm going to end up being offended by something sooner or later, so I might as well put the book down sooner rather than later and escape the aggravation...). Still, I might pick up The Shepherd's Crown, since you found it passable.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You're probably right that Pratchett suffered from Old Smart Rich White Guy syndrome, but I think that as recently as Monstrous Regiment and Unseen Academicals, that was something he was aware of and working against. In both of those novels, he uses Vimes - probably as close as he ever got to writing a self-insert character, and certainly a character who embodies the kind of well-intentioned liberalism that can easily shade into smugness - as an antagonist who, though not unsympathetic to the marginalized protagonists' issues, is still more concerned with his own problems. And even in earlier novels in which Vimes was the protagonist, such as Feet of Clay, Jingo, or The Fifth Elephant, there was usually a moment where Vimes was told the equivalent of "sit down and shut up, this is not about you," and usually had enough sense to do that. Snuff completes the transition of Discworld into a story about a how awesome the liberal protagonist is to recognize the plight of the disenfranchised (though looking back, there may have been hints of this attitude already in Thud!, and the non-Discworld novel Dodger was simply swimming in it).

Raising Steam is absolutely a smug novel, and even worse, it's a novel in which Pratchett tries to get a handle on terrorism. I don't know if Pratchett at his best and sharpest could have handled that topic well - it seems to have defeated an entire generation of smart, liberal white male writers - but he certainly wasn't up to it near the end of his life.

temmere said...

Sorry to go off-topic, but did you ever manage to see Ex Machina? (It seems like the kind of movie you would have reviewed if you had seen it.) My opinion of it was a bit different than the general critical reaction, so I was curious what you thought of it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's definitely on the list of films I want to see, especially before the Hugo voting deadline. And yes, I suspect I'll end up writing about when I do.

Adam Roberts said...

I agree with you that The Blazing World is a very good novel indeed. It's, amongst other things, about whether art itself is a gendered thing, about the extent to which it makes sense to describe an artwork as male or female. Very thought provoking work.

occamsnailfile said...

What is the 'best list of books proper' that Kelly Link didn't quite get onto?

occamsnailfile said...

I guess I should have added more before I sent that: J H Williams III is an amazing graphic artist, a defining talent, though not just of 'genre'. Superheroes are just what pays.

He takes something given to him as story and strikes it like lightning, highlighting all the available areas that need attention, while leaving much of importance in background elements. Panels are something he uses to affect, not out of habit--a cape can serve as a stage as well as a page, as far as he is concerned. His art is grand--he has that Tom of Finland talent for taking the real and making it real-yet-unreal, though his purpose is different. His technique is superb. But his real talent is the layout, the story. He sees the narrative visually in stillframe. He flows across the pages. In short: I agree about Sandman.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I meant that if I hadn't read many of the stories in the Link collection on their own, it would have been in the best books list above the honorable mentions.

When I mentioned on twitter how stunning I found Williams's art on Overture, someone commented that in addition to showing off his talents, the book also makes it clear what artists can do with the technology available to them today. There's a richness to the art that I'm not used to seeing in other comics - and perhaps, unlike artists working on superhero lines, Williams was also given more time to get the art just right.

Post a Comment