Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

I read 47 books in 2013, a marked improvement on last year's dismal showing but still far from where I'd like to be.  I still find myself in periods where reading just doesn't appeal, but happily these are interspersed with others when it's the only thing I'm interested in doing, and hopefully the latter will grow more common in 2014.  And, as in 2012, what my reading lacked in quantity it made up for in quality--despite the title, there are no "worst" books this year, nothing that I'm genuinely angry about having read (or even the fact of its being published), and as regular readers of this blog may notice this year's list of best books and honorable mentions is quite a bit longer than previous years' (and might have been longer still if it hadn't been for some culling--I may yet wake up next week and realize that one of the half-dozen books that were bubbling just under this list actually deserved to be on it).

Probably the biggest reading "event" of 2013 was my epic read-through and review (1, 2) of the Arthur C. Clarke shortlist, something I hadn't done since 2008.  Though I found the shortlist variable (and am ambivalent about the eventual winner, Chris Beckett's Dark Eden), the experience of immersing myself in so much recent SF, and then having to write about it in long-form in what felt, towards the end, like a feverish haze (it still amazes me that my review came out anything like coherent given that I put the finishing touches on it hours before its publication) was heady enough that I'm almost tempted to do it again this year.  Another important reading event was my participation in Crooked Timber's seminar on Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City (the latter of which is one of those books that might, if the wind were from a different quarter, have made this year's best books list).  Having to consider a work from the point of view of an essayist, rather than a reviewer, was challenging and interesting, and I'm pleased with how my contribution came out.  But I also very much enjoyed reading the contributions of other participants, and the resulting discussion.

A little less than half the books I read in 2013 were by women, which was not a foregone conclusion given the weight that the all-male Clarke shortlist had.  Around the middle of the year I made the conscious decision to balance my reading, and read at least one book by a woman for every book I read by a man.  I haven't stuck to that resolution very religiously, but it's definitely a guideline that I plan to keep in mind.  Books in translation made up 15% of the year's reading, which I'm fairly certain is a high point, but also a number worth improving on.  I had several reading projects planned for this year that I never got around to--a continuation of the Women Writing SF series from a few years ago, and a large stack of recent Israeli genre books that I wanted to blog about.  Perhaps having made those intentions public means that I'll finally get around to carrying them out in 2014.

Without any further ado, then, here are 2013's best books, its honorable mentions, and its dishonorable ones, in order of the author's surname.

Best Books:
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

    In a field suffused with YA novels about plucky young girls with secret powers in an unforgiving world, it's easy to dismiss Hartman's debut out of hand.  The fact that its fantasy creatures of choice are dragons certainly doesn't help--it conjures up far too many examples of authors who treat dragons like oversized, sentient cats.  But Hartman's dragons are remarkably fresh and unsentimental, as is her titular heroine, whose bravery and competence are convincing without being overstated, and who conveys the anguish of living a double life, and of doubting her own humanity, without losing sight of the fact that her problems are not the most important thing in her story.  The most impressive thing in Seraphina, however, is the novel's broad, detailed world, and how Hartman establishes it, complete with a storied history, culture, and geography, in a relatively slim novel without ever letting the plot's pace flag.  As appealing as I found its central story--which revolves around prejudice, religion, and the painstaking process of making peace--what makes me eager for Seraphina's sequel(s?) are the half-dozen sub-plots and side quests that Hartman introduces in it, creating a sense of a fully realized world that I am eager to continue exploring.

  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (review)

    If I ran the Clarke award, MacLeod's understated but quietly devastating novel would have won it with hardly any competition.  Working in the time-honored tradition of social SF, MacLeod raises questions about the meaning of freedom when he imagines a world in which government interference in its citizens' lives is well-intentioned and often benevolent, but nevertheless onerous.  This makes it a challenging read if you're someone who thinks that seat belt laws and public smoking bans are a good thing, but rather than browbeating his readers MacLeod creates a world that is stifling almost from the book's first sentence, and places at its center a vivid, sympathetic heroine whose refusal to accommodate her society's definition of public good isn't entirely understandable, even to herself.  Intrusion is not without its flaws--a secondary plotline in which a character is caught up in brutal anti-terror tactics is more heavy-handed than the main plot strand, and the book's conclusion is somewhat overheated.  But as an example of what SF can do, even with a very limited segment of its toolbox, it is both masterful and exciting.

  • The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

    Bar none, the weirdest, most exhilarating book I read in 2013.  Oates is one of two authors on this list whom I read for the first time this year, and The Accursed sets a high bar that it is hard to imagine the rest of her writing clearing, if only because no one could possibly be writing stuff this strange on a regular basis for decades.  At its heart a ghost story about the misfortunes of a single, upper class American family in the early 20th century, The Accursed proceeds in multiple plot strands and shifting styles to become something much baggier than that simple description suggests.  It gestures at a simple explanation for its characters' suffering, indicting them for the repressive system that they prop up and benefit from, and for the vicious, frequently brutal prejudice against black people in which their culture is steeped.  But always when the novel seems about to resolve itself and reveal a method to its madness, it twists away and recommits to the inherent irrationality of its events.  All of which is to make The Accursed sound difficult and weighty, but in reality this is a propulsive, exciting, frequently quite funny novel that begs you to keep turning the pages, whether through characters who remain sympathetic despite frequently deserving their suffering, a knowing and witty pastiche of seemingly every major work of 19th century literature, or the gonzo outrageousness of its plot.

  • Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

    The other author into whose bibliography I made a late foray in 2013, and if Mr. Fox is any indication I have no idea why I waited so long.  A novel in stories whose parts--multiple retellings of the Bluebeard story as well as realist fiction tinged by it--are as engaging as its whole, in which an author in the 1930s is castigated by his muse for killing off women in his stories, and his dissatisfied wife suspects him of having an affair with a woman who may be a figment of his imagination.  Mr. Fox veers wildly between styles and modes, but its three main characters remain vivid in any guise, and the romance between them is as sweet as the issues that underlie the novel--the role of women as muses, helpmeets, or murder victims, but never artists in their own right--are trenchant and painful.  This is a witty, funny, romantic work, whose pleasures are both cerebral--working out the connections between the stories and the way that each one reflects on the framing story and the novel's themes--and deeply emotional.

  • A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (review)

    Samatar's debut takes a while to resolve itself, seeming, in its first half, like a beautifully written travelogue of a vividly imagined fantasy world.  This in itself, of course, is no mean accomplishment, and the rich, poetic prose with which A Stranger in Olondria relates the experiences of its narrator in the titular empire is very nearly worth the price of admission in its own right.  But it's in its second half that the book transitions from accomplished to genuinely special, slowly and subtly introducing themes of race and colonialism in a way that makes them resonate all the more when they finally become apparent, and weaving into them a powerful discussion of the power of books, one that avoids the soppy sentimentality that such discussions usually descend into.  Reminiscent in some ways of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, A Stranger in Olondria is also very much its own, unique creation, a powerful reminder of what fantasy is capable of even within the seemingly limiting category of secondary world fantasy.
Honorable Mentions:
  • Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (review) - A vital component of Banks's Culture sequence, this novel functions as a sort of puzzle, which only resolves in its final pages.  This made for a frustrating read, but one that in retrospect only gains in power and importance.

  • Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick - Focusing on the stories of six North Korean defectors, Demick's book is both an engrossing, heartbreaking primer on that country's history and present misfortune, and a portrait of how ordinary people cope with life in an irrational system--of the lengths they go to, first to justify their world, and then to escape it.

  • Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner - The same satirical sensibility that made Kästner such an exceptional children's author is here used to skewer and lament pre-war German society, with results that are both funny and terrifying.

  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (review) - A whirlwind tour through the solar system of 300 years hence combined with a sweet love story between a woman from Mercury and a man from the moons of Saturn.  Though not without its flaws (chiefly its handling of Earth and the question of first world aid to third world countries), the sheer scope of the novel's worldbuilding, and the touching humanity of its characters, made it impossible to resist.

  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - Small but perfectly formed, this portrait of a small village in post-colonial Sudan touches on a myriad subjects in less than 200 pages, and veers between naturalism and allegory.  And yet it never feels overstuffed or shapeless, and its ideas about the lingering effect of colonialism are powerful and undeniable.
Dishonorable Mentions:
  • NOD by Adrian Barnes (review) - A near future apocalypse novel that, under its gloss of originality, is essentially a bog-standard zombie story.  That the narrator is profoundly unpleasant is clearly deliberate, but just what this is in service of escapes me.

  • Zero History by William Gibson - The Bigend trilogy ends with a whimper, as Gibson continues to rehash ideas about technology and its effect on the world that, while groundbreaking ten years ago, feel like old hat today.

  • Dodger by Terry Pratchett - That Dodger is poorly written and not very funny is perhaps to be expected (and perhaps also not something that it is fair to criticize Pratchett for, though his publishers are certainly fair game).  That it continues the alarming trend of Pratchett's progressivism ossifying into milquetoast, middle class liberalism, however, is simply a tragedy.

2 comments:

Sebastian said...

Now I feel bad for reading no more than 30 books this year! I need to shape up and stop re-reading the same dreck expecting it to get better. Of all these I'd like to try the North Korean one. I have a deep admiration for people who survive absurd (on top of cruel) regimes.

Ian. Ras. said...

Oates is really that big of a weirdo and I mean that in the best possible sense. And if aliens arrived tomorrow and asked for an narrative explanation of human nature in fifteen pages or less, I would gladly hand them a copy of 'gunlove' from Faithless: Tales of Transgression.and be done with it.

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