As much as I love making lists, I hate to make straightforward top ten lists and whatnot. That’s why most years I won’t do a Ten Best Movies of the Year list, but instead will do a list of my favorite heroes, then a list of my favorite villains, along with a bunch of other superlatives. It is why most years Brian and I make a bunch of music lists in different categories instead of simply picking our five or ten favorite albums. Part of the reason for this is because it’s more fun, but it is also because I hate leavings things I love off of the list as I whittle it down. It also results in the comparison of apples and oranges.
Alas, sometimes that’s all a guy can do when he wants to share his favorite stuff with people. The only thing that separates this from a straightforward top ten list is that there are twelve books included, and that i avoided redundancy by leaving off books I’ve already written about. This is the best of the rest, as it were. The books I haven’t written about yet came down to time and energy, and wasn’t because the books I neglected were inferior to the books I raved about. I don’t love the books on this list more or less than the books I’ve already mentioned.
As is always the case with books, these are NOT necessarily books released this year, but instead are books I read this year for the first time. Some are brand new, some are decades old.
The books I’ve already written about are:
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz
The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater
Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo
The Imperfectionists – Tom Rachman
Here are six more I loved, out of the twelve I will inevitably get to, in the order I read them:
1. Dodger – Terry Pratchett
Set in a slightly alternate version of Victorian London, a teenaged tosher (a street urchin who makes his living collecting valuables that have washed into the sewer) named Dodger saves a young woman trying to escape from would-be kidnappers. The result is an adventure that brings him into contact with historical figures like Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, and fictional characters like Sweeney Todd.
It’s a light, fun read, but not without some satisfying engagement with questions of coming of age, finding our place, and decisions about what it means to live well in a morally ambiguous and complicated world.
The eponymous main character is easy to root for. Personally, I’ve always been a bit predisposed to love sneaky, clever characters who are moral in the big areas but grey in the smaller ones. Those underdog characters using wits and street smarts to consistently get one over on the cruel and powerful have always been a favorite of mine, and Dodger is a top notch example.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
Another installment on my quest to read every novel that has won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and yet another reason to be in awe of Le Guin’s body of work. Le Guin’s science fiction/fantasy functions at a higher level than most. Often, science fiction that wrestles with ideas like this sacrifices prose, but hers is always beautifully written, never a missing or wasted word.
The Left Hand of Darkness finds a human character sent alone to a planet of sexually androgynous humanoids to be a representative for the Ekumen, a galactic coalition or empire. Never wanting a new planet to join the coalition due to fear or intimidation, and never wanting unnecessary bloodshed, the Ekumen always sends a single envoy to reveal the existence of other intelligent live in the universe, and establish first contact and an invitation to join the Ekumen.
One of the most celebrated SF novels of all time, the territory explored is complex and rich, but the writing is always simple and straightforward. The metaphors of the book play with sexuality, gender, political intrigue, language, religion, and faith.
When folks make claims about liking Battlestar Galactica because “it isn’t like other science fiction, it is about people and ideas and politics,” they are ignorant of the fact this isn’t what separates Battlestar Galactica from science fiction, it is what separates Battlestar Galactica from the shitty, lazy sort of science fiction. Among many other things, all fiction uses metaphors in the telling of a story to say things that can’t be said well enough in mere propositions and arguments, science fiction and fantasy just uses a particular palette of themes in doing that. Sure, there are garbage science fiction books that appeal to people who will read anything with spaceships in it, but writing off all science fiction because of that is like writing off Jane Austen as a hack because Harlequin Romance novels exist.
The Left Hand of Darkness is proof positive that a book should never, ever be judged by its genre, and if you write off an entire style of writing without curiosity you’re lazy, and you’re the one missing out.
3. Forever Peace – Joe Haldeman
And immediately, another installment in my quest to read every book that has ever won both the Hugo and the Nebula. Although the author is the same, and the title sounds like the title of a sequel, this novel is actually entirely separate in narrative from Haldeman’s earlier novel The Forever War. Forever Peace engages war, but in a very different way, and from an entirely different angle. Actually, I think it is far more brilliant and interesting than The Forever War (which I loved, by the way).
Forever Peace is set in a not very distant future where American military personnel jack their brains into computers and remotely control units called “soldierboys” to fight around the world. That premise could easily set up a straightforward action story, where narrative loosely connects action scenes. Instead, this is a novel that is constantly surprising and engaging, and like The Forever War, pushes the reader to understand the inevitable costs of war on individuals, societies, and beyond. This one spins way out beyond that, too, with all sorts of twists and turns, without ever losing its core of intelligent ideas.
In connection with the argument made in regards to the previous book, I actually think this book is more accessible to the science fiction virgin. Even if you think you don’t like SF, you should still give this book a try.
4. Ironweed – William Kennedy
Ironweed is the Pulitzer winning novel about Francis Phelan, a homeless drunk, once a talented baseball player, who is so haunted by his that he is crippled by it. To a lesser degree, it is also about his lover, who is equally trapped in her life as a drunk.
Francis man wanders around his hometown of Albany, returning after years away, as he comes to terms with whether or not he will finally face his (literal) ghosts and try to live again.
As the Pulitzer suggests, this book is beautifully written, wonderful prose that adds to the wrestling heartbreak and hope on Ironweed’s pages. The characters are never lionized or demonized, Francis feels like a real person, unable to forgive himself for his past mistakes, unable to reconcile his current state to the giant he once believed himself to be. Yet, as he is forgiven by others, the reader hopes he might come to see himself in a new light, neither giant nor monster, but simply a man.
I look forward to eventually reading the rest of Kennedy’s novels, some about other members of the Phelan clan, and almost all part of his Albany Cycle.
5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Such a surprise that the newest book by my favorite author would show up on this list (it’s also not the last time he shows up either).
As said in this review of the book, those of us who love Gaiman love his voice just as much as we love whatever he says with it. I love the things Gaiman writes about, but I also genuinely love the way he writes about them.
My masters thesis was about fiction and its ability to (quoting my own abstract) “create a liminal space which can be a site of growth and transition, in which we can enter into ambiguity and reemerge as changed people, with increased capacity for wonder, mourning, relationship, creativity, and life.” It is no coincidence that it is Gaiman’s work that I used as a central way of discussing fiction’s power to do this. Gaiman is the storyteller who, in my mind, best illustrates the power of fiction (starting with myth as far back as history stretches) to do what I argued it is capable of doing.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman writes a story of a man who returns to the neighborhood of his childhood, and there re-enters a story from his youth he thought imaginary. In his narrative, we are confronted with the reality that as we “grow into ourselves” as adults, we often leave ourselves behind in truth. Part of the reason I love Gaiman’s work so much is because it is often an invitation to risk and life, and his stories lead me down into the dark and terrifying terrain that is my own heart, reminding me always to do the scary work of listening to my desire instead of constantly hiding it from myself.
6. Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Letham
Lionel Essrog is muscle for a sleazy detective agency, he also suffers from the frequently comorbid conditions of Tourette Syndrome and OCD. When his boss is killed, Essrog is compelled to unravel the who and the why.
In this wonderfully written private detective novel, Letham explores the difficulty of unraveling the mystery of ourselves. And in that sense, instead of truly offering answers, what Letham actually does is better reveal the mystery and the questions.
Motherless Brooklyn offers the excitement, enjoyably dark characters, and pacing of a detective novel, but with brilliant prose, and a far more profound and engaging story.