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 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.
- The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden & In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente
- The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
- 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.