My Best Books of 2008
I read 87 books over the course of 2008. I keep a list. Of course, the year isn’t over yet (I write this in mid-December), and I don’t include books I haven’t finished, so anthologies and collections tend to get forgotten, as do non-fiction books I fillet for reference purposes, not to mention the ones I give up reading (perhaps temporarily) but it will do.
Probably the majority of the books are SF or fantasy published this year (in Britain) because I write a regular monthly review column for the Times. When not “on duty,” I nearly always pick up something outside those genres, frequently non-fiction: biography, history and memoirs, mostly, but also on topics that catch my interest. I belong to a local book group that meets once a month, and after a few less-than-inspiring selections, we found ourselves moving towards the classics, with the result that three of the most memorable books I read this year – for the first time! – were Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, and Germinal by Emile Zola. The last was a revelation: I’d never read any Zola before, and now I understand why he was considered so shocking , and also why he was such an important writer – and still well worth reading for his insight and power.
I’ll start off with four books I chose for the Times as the highlights of the year and then move on to my other favorites.
House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds -- If you like hard SF space opera heavily laced with awe and mystery, look no further. I think this may be the best SF novel published in 2008. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of space opera (which seems to have become the dominant face of SF in recent years) and I must admit I never understood why such a fuss was made about Reynolds’ first novel, Revelation Space. But although I approached it with caution, once I started reading, I was completely gripped by House of Suns. It took me back to my early days as a fan, when I read SF for the sense of wonder it inspired – pure pleasure.
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley – More hard science, but closer to home, being confined to our solar system, and set in the near future, with more explicable technology. I’m in awe of writers who can do this sort of thing as well as Paul does here. How does he know so much, about so many different things? Occasionally he gets a bit carried away with the info-dumps – the nerd aspect of hard SF – but the nerd in me secretly enjoyed that, too. He’s good at evoking different atmospheres and settings, and the plot is exciting and kept me guessing all the way.
Omega by Christopher Evans – This was published by a small press, the estimable and much appreciated PS. SF as a genre has become more generic over the years, defined by a few obvious tropes and objects, so if it doesn’t have space ships in it, somehow it doesn’t qualify. When I first discovered the genre, as a teenager in the 1960s, SF seemed much bolder, wilder, and more experimental than the stuffy mainstream, and attracted writers like J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Christopher Priest, who, if they were beginning to write today, would presumably be published as mainstream…or not at all. Chris Evans is a fine writer, but not a prolific or predictable one. Each one of his books is different. (To me, that seems like a good thing, but apparently not so in the publishing biz.) Characterization and ideas are two of his strengths, and although there’s generally a strong science fictional element to his work, he’s more interested in psychological and moral issues than in pyrotechnics or wild’n’crazy plots. Omega could almost be a mainstream novel – almost – about one man’s mental breakdown and recovery…. yet it is also, just as strongly, a novel about alternate worlds/alternate history, and it has a really terrific hard-science (or wacky science?) idea at its core. I was especially impressed by the way ideas about war and masculinity were put under scrutiny: the main character is an expert on warcraft – in one world he’s the creator of a TV series about famous battles; in the other, he’s a real soldier, in a grim, unending war – but not so good at personal relationships.
The Two Pearls of Wisdom by Alison Goodman (American title Eon: Dragoneye Reborn) was my favorite fantasy of the year. I loved the background she created – society, landscape and mythology all based on ancient China and medieval Japan – and I especially liked the narrator (a physically disabled young woman who is passing as a eunuch) and the wide variety of characters she meets; a lot of great gender-bending stuff, as well as some unexpected plot twists makes me eager to read the sequel.
If I’d had more space I would have included Acacia by David Anthony Durham, the first volume of a new epic fantasy. This is a genre that doesn’t often appeal to me, but this one was so well-written, and just felt so real in its depiction of an entire, complicated, varied world, that I was hooked. Also, although it is about power, politics and war (like most of its ilk) it also features issues of slavery and drug addiction that resonate powerfully with our own contemporary world.
I would also have included Neal Stephenson’s wonderfully rich, absorbing new novel Anathem, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow – it’s maybe a tad didactic, a little too much aimed at American teens (not a bad thing in itself, of course, just not who I am); but it’s an eye-opener on the subject of surveillance, privacy and freedom, and I’m really glad I read it.
If I’d been able to review it, I certainly would have added Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney. (I was sent an advance copy, but it was assigned to a mainstream reviewer, and fair enough. Although it could slip into fantasy or even horror, it stretches the boundaries considerably.) My curiosity was piqued because although presented as a debut novel, there was no mug-shot of the author and no biography, and it didn’t read like a first novel. The writing was so assured and accomplished, and there was something very faintly familiar about the style…so I was not utterly astonished to learn that “William Heaney” was really Graham Joyce – in America, this will be published as How to Make Friends With Demons under his own name. Whatever it’s called, and whatever genre-label gets stuck on it, this is an outstanding book. A vein of sympathetic humor runs through it; also a vein of dark fantasy, but it is really impossible to categorize. It’s a new novel by the talented Graham Joyce, and it’s wonderful. I must say, too, that Gollancz did a wonderful production job on it, making it look like an old, leather-bound volume with slightly faded gilt edging –it’s beautiful, and total appeals to the book-lover.
But I think the most memorable book of the year for me was Black & White by Lewis Shiner. Like Graham Joyce and Christopher Evans, Lewis Shiner is impossible to limit as a writer, and hard to categorize. He’s always gone his own way, and while some of his books have been highly praised and done quite well, he’s never really broken through to the mass recognition and sales I think his books deserve. Glimpses will probably always be my favorite, but his new novel is even more impressive in its maturity and the importance of what it has to say. It’s a story about family relationships and also about big issues of politics and race – yes, the personal is political, and vice versa -- a gripping, suspenseful thriller, set in North Carolina, and an intimate, beautifully written, compellingly believable story of growth and understanding. Considering the grim reality of racism, he manages to be surprisingly up-beat without ever going for a facile solution or easy optimism. There’s real, hard-won wisdom here, along with great story-telling.
Another great read I must mention is Brief Lives: Sandman, Vol. 7 by Neil Gaiman and Jill Thomas. Yes, old news; I know; it came out, what, ten years ago? But I pretty much gave up on graphic novels before then. I found the format a struggle to read, and, frankly, seldom worth the effort. Talk about over-praised! Even the best stuff was, in my view, rarely up to the level I’d expect of a halfway-decent novel, and when the writing was good, the art let it down; when the art was really good, the text too often was not. Cut to last spring, when I was hanging around a comic store in Austin, Texas, waiting for my daughter to find some obscure manga title, and I picked this book up just to pass the time (everybody said this was so great…) O-M-G. Now I get it. This one really is as good as everybody says. So now I will have to buy them all…. but can the rest really be up to this level? I hesitate, and pick up another book without pictures…
* * *
My best non-fiction reads of the year:
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: My Life With Carlos Castaneda by Amy Wallace -- An amazing and compelling story. One of those books that makes you sharply aware of just how rich and strange the lives of others can be! It reads like a novel, although if it were fiction, I’d object that some of the characters were just too weird to be believable…and what’s their motivation? And about those unsolved mysteries…
Back Talk: Teaching Lost Selves to Speak by Joan Weimer -- The “self-help” aspect implied by the subtitle did not appeal to me as much as the author’s novel approach to combining memoir with literary biography. Weimer is an academic who has researched the life and works of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a now largely forgotten American writer, here brought wonderfully to life again through a combination of scholarship and imagination. Her own story of slow recuperation from back surgery, and the life-style changes it required, is also quite gripping, enlightening and encouraging.
Blood Matters: A Journey along the Genetic Frontier by Masha Gessen – A wonderfully rich and enlightening work on a very important subject. Although at times the combination of personal story (Gesson, with a high genetic chance of getting breast cancer, had to decide whether or not to have pre-emptive surgery) didn’t entirely meld with all the other stuff about genetic testing, and it sometimes reads like a collection of magazine articles stitched together, there is so much fascinating material here, all presented in a clear and very immediate, human way, that I’d recommend it to anyone with even the slightest curiosity about how our rapidly growing knowledge of genetics is already changing individual lives, expectations, and society.
And, finally….honorable mentions. I liked all of these, each is good in its own way, but enough with the reviewing. Go, browse, enjoy!
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
The Night Sessions by Ken McLeod
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale
Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard
Tithe by Holly Black
Lisa is the author of more than a dozen novels and many more stories and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Feminism. She won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1974 and the BSFA Award for short fiction in 1989. Aqueduct recently reprinted her novella My Death as the 21st volume in the Conversation Pieces Series.
Aqueduct Review of 2008
Given where this article is to be published, I guess I should start with books that have strong gender themes. I was very nervous about Lauren McLaughlin’s Cycler, but it turned out to be a clever and entertaining read, and not really about actual transgender experiences, despite the fact that the heroine turns into wolf boy once per moon. Supervillainz, on the other hand, is the first book I have read with two very easily recognizable trans people in the staring roles. Alicia E Goranson clearly knows what she is talking about and presents an entire LGBT community in a sympathetic way while still telling an astute story about contemporary politics.
On the non-fiction side, Wendy Pearson’s Queer Universes was inevitably patchy, being a collection of academic essays by many different authors, but it gave me plenty to think about. Riki Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory was sharp, focused and actually helped me understand postmoderism.
Because of a paper I am working on for ICFA I have had to re-read a number of classic SF works with gender themes, and some rather odd books as well. Any excuse to re-read The Female Man (Joanna Russ) and The Passion of New Eve (Angela Carter) is a good excuse. I could probably have done without reading Steel Beach (John Varley), and I leave it to the reader to work out why I have been re-reading Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil and Friday.
I’ve been trying to broaden my reading this year and consequently have picked up several mainstream novels which connect with fantasy and science fiction. Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence is entertaining and just subtle enough for the author’s many non-genre fans to claim that it wasn’t “really” fantasy, but it is preferable to most of the formula fantasy that gets published these days. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is much more obviously genre, though I was surprised at how many reviewers missed the political subtext. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts is quite bizarre, but I rather enjoyed it and I particularly like the idea of conceptual sharks.
Moving on to fantasy, one of my favorite books of the year was Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone. Many genre writers have used robots to question what it means to be human, but Sedia has created a lovely New Weird parable with a steampunk automaton who also gets us to question what it means to be a woman. It is highly recommended, and I can see it being a set text in feminist SF classes in years to come. Other class acts this year have included Memoirs of a Master Forger by Graham Joyce (masquerading as William Heaney) and The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford. Both of these authors are highly accomplished and it should only be necessary to say that both are still at the top of their game. 2008 also saw two very fine debuts in Daryl Gregory’s Pandemonium and J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon. I’m looking forward to seeing more from both of those writers, and from Felix Gilman whose Thunderer was also very promising. A book I expected to be a big hit was Greg Frost’s Shadowbridge, but the second half of the book, Lord Tophet, didn’t quite light as many fireworks, despite having the best last line I have read in years. I think I might have been happier reading the whole thing through at once.
It has been an odd year for science fiction, at least from where I have been looking. Probably the best bit of straight SF has been Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War. Even that, however, focuses more on biology than physics, and does not yet have US publication so many people will have missed it. The best books (in my humble opinion) have been Spaceman Blues and Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery, but Slattery’s prose is so rich that I fear he’s an acquired taste. My tip for the Hugo is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. As a YA book it is easy to read. It is also very geeky, and the TSA is such an easy target (hated by lefties and Libertarians alike) that you’d have to be very authoritarian to be put off by the book’s overt political message.
As usual, women SF writers tend to be ignored, sometimes even by feminist SF fans, so I’d like to highlight a couple of my personal favorites. At first glance Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series isn’t too promising. It is, after all, about a sexy, leather-clad cyborg and her elf-rockstar-magician boyfriend. But Justina is one of the smartest people writing SF today, and no matter how accessible she makes her books that intelligence comes shining through. Going Under, this year’s offering, is no exception. More traditional feminist SF can be had from Liz Williams. Winterstrike is a set in the same world as her Banner of Souls, and that means a feminist separatist colony on Mars. To some extent it is a response to The Gate to Women’s Country, in that the men have been exiled to the wilderness, but as this is a world crammed with sophisticated biotech they have also been devolved. Just because Liz’s SF books are currently UK-only is no excuse, folks. Go check them out.
I’ve read two other feminist SF books this year. Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (Daughters of the North in the US) was deeply disappointing. Although well written, it was a return to 1970’s style separatist dogma, combined with the nonsensical and self-pitying “we are living in the worst of all possible times” attitude that is so popular in the blogosphere. In contrast, Sylvia Kelso’s Amberlight was brave and aggressive. It was also confidently heterosexual, which makes a change. Given a choice as to which of these writers I’d want to lead feminist SF forward, I know which one I’d vote for.
As usual I have seen very little in the way of movies or TV drama, and certainly nothing worth writing about. I would, however, like to mention a TV series, and the accompanying book. Michael Wood is mainly famous for producing programs about ancient history, but his latest work is as much travelogue. It traces the history of India from civilizations as venerable as Egypt all the way through the Moghul and British empires to the present day. Who needs alien worlds when we have such rich, colorful and (in the west) largely unknown worlds to explore?
Finally, I’d like to give a plug for some live action. Many of you will have heard of the famous KGB readings in New York, but the Left Coast now has its own genre readings series. SF in SF (sponsored by Tachyon Publications, Borderlands Books and San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions Inc., and hosted for free at the magnificent Variety Preview Room) has been going from strength to strength. We’ve also raised a fair amount of money for Variety in the process. Podcasts of many past events are available on the web site courtesy of Rick Kleffel. The events are chaired by Terry Bisson, and we are actively looking for writers to fill out our 2009 program.
Cheryl is a science fiction critic who once won a Hugo award for writing and editing an online book review magazine. These days Cheryl doesn’t quite manage to read 8-10 novels a month, but she hopes that she is still reading the good stuff. These days Cheryl’s writing can be found at her personal blog, Cheryl’s Mewsings and at Science Fiction Awards Watch, which she runs in collaboration with Kevin Standlee.