1. Mary Garber
6. Cindy Vaskova
7. Elephant's Child
8. Ross Dillon
9. Katherine Hajer
10. Sonia Lal
12. Margit Sage
13. Beverly Fox
7. Elephant's Child
8. Ross Dillon
9. Katherine Hajer
10. Sonia Lal
12. Margit Sage
13. Beverly Fox
Now, as far my favorites...
George Eliot’s Middlemarch
My pick for #NaNoReMo in February just about ruined long Fantasy novels for me. My copy was a scant 1,000 pages and needed every page, something not many books can claim. It starts so simply, with a feminist joke of a woman at a dinner party who’s afraid she might have to start thinking for herself. But her wealthy suitor doesn’t want a wife who thinks or remembers what she reads to him; only one who reads clearly and doesn’t interrupt. There’s another man who might be better for her, but he’s too preoccupied with trying to introduce scientific medicine to the town. That science seems blasphemous to many local political figures, who attempt to prevent his entry, or court him if they’ll help him with something.
Middlemarch keeps adding points of view and dares head-hop, sometimes multiple times within a paragraph, to show the myriad ways we conflict with each other. It’s a painstaking novel about mishearing out of fear, paying selective attention, hiding things capriciously or for reasons you don’t even know are pointless. It’s the anatomy of conflict, often embarrassing, sometimes funny, and all too often, utterly damning to the rationalizations I’m guilty of every day – but it’s expanded beyond a character, or her family, and out into an entire community.
It needs every page it gets to cover its ground. I’m not the sort who believes in the Best Novel of All Time, but for the first time in years, I understood why people would think that sort of nonsense.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars
The novel that restored by faith in long Fantasy. After the existential crisis that Middlemarch caused, I had several failed runs reading Epic Fantasies that were not nearly complex enough to need their page space. There was one particularly bad experience with a Fantasy about farm hands striving to rescue kidnapped children that, after six hundred pages, couldn’t even resolve the God-damned kidnapping. I briefly wondered if I wasn’t in the wrong genre. And then Kay released River of Stars.
Elegance is a big part of it. The emperor sees himself as kind even though his actions are highly proud and capricious; a young female poet defies the social order of her world by getting an education reserved for men; a dashing outlaw raids convoys that the government won’t even miss. And yet there’s a government official who falls in love with the charm of the outlaw, and the poet’s father cherishes her in oblique ways, such that not everyone is the center of their own world, but everyone has a distinct and dynamic life. The country is so vast, with so many walks of life that even when it’s brought to war with the country to the north, not everyone experiences it the same way. It challenges the notion of a large body having a mono-culture or a shared value, for what’s universal if thousands of people can die in a war and there are citizens who don’t even know it’s happening? The various players keep interacting in novel ways, enriched by brilliant themes of how history is made and remembered. It’s not just what a war hero means to himself in the moment, or the troops around him, or the family he left at home that can’t know what he’s going through, but also what his sacrifices amount to in the next battle, and after the war. There’s a terrible permanence that pings all the way to the last page.
Tom Holt’s Blonde Bombshell
The funniest Science Fiction I’ve read in years, and easily the best novel that could ever have been published with such a title. It references one of the protagonists: a sentient bomb that has second thoughts about destroying earth. Holt has thought out bomb psychology very thoroughly, including why, among all machines, they’re the only atheists (a bomb only needs the satisfaction of a job well done). The bomb winds up taking humanoid form to explore our planet with some zany culture clash, but we’re also treated to a female Steve Jobs who’s afraid she’d being haunted by unicorns and, well, very quickly I realized I needed to buy this as birthday presents for several people.
Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son
The second Middle Grade comic to ever show up on my lists, and a series that feels destined to become one of my favorite works of sequential art of all time. There are plenty of good books, a surprising number of great books, but few things make me think that if everyone read them the world would be a better place. Wandering Son is on that extremely short list. It is the tender story of a kindergartener who wishes he was a girl and begins experimenting in trans* - at first in secret, just touching or trying on a dress, and then seeing if he’s noticed when he goes out in public. It’s not about prurience. It’s about not understand why everyone expects you to behave a certain way, and even as a cis-gendered guy, it touched on several questions I had at seven years old but figured were stupid because no one else ever brought them up and gender policing was so strict. This is a beautiful series that opens up the conversation in a way kids can understand. It probably would have made me a more tolerant kid.
Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal
The other manga on my list, and one of my all-time favorite Historical Fantasies. It’s a series that keeps me coming back and pacing out its entries so that there will always be more for future years. This year I read volumes 15-18, which covered most of the incredibly disturbing turn into Body Horror, as the immortal Manji was abducted and the subject of experiments for what happened if parts of his body were transplanted to others. It’s only because Samura is so good at storytelling and pacing that I stuck around for two straight volumes of incredibly disturbing imagery. Typically I want such stories to suck, so that I can dismiss them and walk away. It’s so much harder when a story is well-written and has hooks, like the slipping psychology of the physician who can’t keep patients alive, and I’m forced to admit I’m fascinated.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos
I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel where the central point of interest was the identity of the narrator. Who the hell is telling this story? Sometimes it references being present, but it also references a future where humans are hunted by killer whales, and seems to have introspective knowledge of multiple characters in multiple continents. Is it a god watching use evolve? Is an alien anthropologist? Is it a time traveler checking out what went on back when humans still had legs? The stranding of the voyagers and the ominous tones of impending doom on humanity-as-we-know-it are interesting plot points, but the whole thing works because Vonnegut decided to make the storyteller ambiguous. The result is my favorite Vonnegut novel I’ve ever read.
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl
An annoying number of Horror movies ask the question, “Is the hero haunted or crazy?”
The Drowning Girl has the genius idea of answering, “Both.”
Kiernan has crafted a masterpiece of dark fiction, focusing on a first person narrator who is struggling to become and stay reliable. Her schizophrenia complicates her ability to keep track of the people she’s really met, and the feelings she’s really had, while she encounters people who may well be ghosts that can’t help but drive people mad. While Kiernan resists labeling the novel “Horror,” the section where our narrator goes off her meds for several pages is as harrowing a piece of prose as I can remember reading.
And the great trick to The Drowning Girl isn’t figuring out if her lover was dead all along, or who really put the weird painting somewhere, but to opening yourself to empathizing with people who are can’t help but hurt.
And if you don’t like that, well, there’s Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.
Peter Straub’s Ghost Story
The fricking mother of all ghost stories. I was blown back by how many elements I recognized from the novels of Stephen King, the movies of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, and pretty much every spooky videogame I’ve ever played, all of which came after this novel. It was like coming home to the house I didn’t know I’d grown up in.
Here is a small club of storytellers who love to share ghost stories. A member died several years ago, seemingly in terror of an empty room. Ever since they’ve had inexplicable moments that inspire more stories: a woman turning into a home wrecker out of nowhere, or being stalked by wind, or the thing that was in one of their stories years ago being reported as slaughtering the local cows. What’s haunting them isn’t a conventional ghost, but almost a zeitgeist of the stories they can’t leave alone. Often creepy, often eccentric, it keeps building until it pays off in one of the most satisfying conclusions of any Horror novel I’ve ever read. And I haven’t even been stalked by anything from the book since.
Steven Strogatz’s Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
Confession time: it took me four years to read this book. I don’t understand people who can read this thing in a weekend unless they live and breathe science. I would pick the book up, read half a page about why bridges sway in rhythms under foot traffic, or how body temperature commands sleep rhythms, or how a room temperature liquid can move through a solid, and need to digest it, or run to Youtube to see evidence of the claim. There are pages in this book that I read two dozen times, trying to wrap my head around room temperature super conductors and the nanoscopic traits of lasers. It’s all interesting, but furthermore, it all amounts to a staggering hypothesis: despite entropy, the universe is full of a highly suspicious amount of spontaneous order.
My only non-fiction book on the list. Most of my non-fiction diet is from blogs, websites and magazines, but this is some of the best science writing I’ve ever read. Strogatz tackles the bizarre theory of complexity and spontaneous order. In a universe that seems bound by entropy, we still see complex order emerging in almost every major system, not only star systems that immediately lapse into gravitational patterns, but inside your own body, inside biological societies, and even on trafficked bridges and inside super-heated beakers. While the book doesn’t claim to know why order emerges so rapidly, it pushes at the boundaries of how we understand the laws of the universe.
Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni
The only book I stayed up until 2:00 AM reading this year, and in this case, two nights in a row. What a debut novel, audaciously mixing the Genre and the Literary into a hauntingly introspective set of narratives. We follow a newly created golem and an ancient jinni as they are stranded in New York City, circa 1899, and following the Melting Pot into ethnic ghettos. There’s the poignancy of a golem, built out of Jewish tradition, failing to appreciate the teachings of the rabbi who shelters her, as well as the thrills of the jinni trying to get drunk and party with locals.
We anticipate a love story whenever these two finally discover they’re not alone in the sea of humanity, but the novel holds a much bigger payload. Its ending is the least binary of any novel I’ve read since Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, because as the golem is hunted by her creator and the tools to re-enslaving the jinni emerge, there are so many ways it could close. It’s not about beating Voldemort or rescuing the princess anymore. It’s about hearts that could change, and people who could disappear off the streets forever. A heck of a debut novel.