Friday, December 25, 2009
Stevereads 2009 Honor Roll!
Several of you have made interesting suggestions for how I should wrap things up here at Stevereads in 2009 - and some of those suggestions have been more practical than others! Perhaps influenced by what you've read on other book-blogs, several people have emailed (privately, of course! wouldn't be the Silent Majority without the 'silent' part, now would it? Sigh...) asking me to finish up by listing all the 'books read' this year. I've seen such features on other blogs, and I agree, it gives a nicely-fenced picture postcard of a year-in-books. But it won't work here, for the simple reason that I tend to read much more than most people (not bragging, mind you - I also sleep quite a bit less than most people, so finding the time isn't difficult). This week, in a feverish attempt to polish off most of the books I have left for 2009, I've been devoting more time to reading than my customary 6 or 7 hours a day - and that's pushed my year-to-date tally to something like 700 books. Which clearly won't work for a blog entry, even one of my classic stem-winders.
Another suggestion a few of you have made was for me to devote an entry or two to my favorite re-reading experiences this year. But while it's true that I dearly love re-reading, when you think about it, the bulk of Stevereads has been a chronicle of just that, my experiences in re-reading. I've tended to leave discussions of new stuff to my colleagues, collaborators, and myself over at Open Letters Monthly (whose beautiful new January issue goes up in less than a week, so you should all mark your calendars - it's an eye-opener!). It's only in these year-end round-ups that I've predominantly dealt with new titles, and really, does anybody need to know that in 2009 I re-read the Penguin Classic War with Hannibal again, or The Power That Preserves? Bad enough that I know it myself ...
Surprisingly, several of you have emailed asking for video! Partly this is understandable, since I am, after all, a stone-cold super-hottie - and part of it is eerie, since in 2009 I did, in fact, explore the technological requirements of doing podcasts and video-podcasts. My explorations yielded no technology anywhere near simple enough for me to use, however, and the year's end has closed in on me before I could inquire further.
But one of the most-requested items this year is something I can most certainly do: a Stevereads Honor Roll. In the winnowing process for selecting my Best Fiction and Best Nonfiction, I was constantly reminded of all the really good books I read this year that for one reason or another didn't make the cut for the very top lists. Books that challenged me, or amused me - books that were definitely worthy of attention. In your emails - and in person - several of you have said something like "I wish I had you with me when I'm browsing at the bookstore/library" - and I'd dearly love to be there .... I love recommending books to people.
So here's the Stevereads Honor Roll for 2009! In the interests of space, I'm foregoing elaborate plot summaries and just issuing an Atlantic-style seal of approval: each one of these books is an outstanding example of its category; each one of them is well worth your time, should you encounter it. You can consider it the blog-tastic equivalent of having me along at the library, only this way, you don't get dog-hair on your clothes!
2009 Fiction Honor Roll:
Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin - We'll begin and end the Fiction Honor Roll with ongoing mystery series that continue to hit all the right notes - starting with the latest Adelia Aguilar novel, which again has our headstrong sleuth applying 16th century (at least!) forensics to 12th century crimes.
The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno - As summaries go, 'a quirky
family learns about love' is usually enough to make me vomit on a book, not put it on an Honor Roll - but what can I say? Meno's book, summarized in just that way, spectacularly works.
Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty - Although it's easily the best gritty Irish noir being written today, that alone wouldn't put McKinty's latest (don't miss his Dead I Well May Be) on this list - no, there's also a forlorn kind of poetry in his prose line, an ear that would recommend his prose no matter what he was writing about.
The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine - An old storyteller is dying, and his family gathers around him with stories of their own - again, as premises go, this one should have sent me running for the nearest MEG novel - but the execution here is so talented, you get swept along.
Men I Might Have Known by Brad Saunders - It's no easy thing to write gay male erotica this good; Saunders faces competition from about a million websites, bloggers, and tweeters (the entire Internet being based, you see, on porn - most certainly including the stuff aimed at the gays). But his stories are surprisingly memorable - little might-have-been fantasies like the kind we all spin about random strangers every day.
Will by Christopher Rush - This is a perfect example of that particular kind of book that sticks with you weeks after you read it, refusing to be forgotten. Rush may well have written the single best Shakespeare novel ever - which is a far more astonishing accomplishment than you might at first think, if you didn't know the sheer numbers of his competition.
Love and Summer by William Trevor - The thing you notice about this slim, very engaging novel is how confidently it doesn't say things ... there's a world of very adult implication filling up the silences of this 1, 436th novel by Trevor, whose debut novel Turn of the Rose was, as you all know, published in 1210.
The Silver Skull by Mark Chadbourn - An old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery novel, complete with two staples of that long-lost and much-lamented sub-genre: non-stop action and a hero whose very perfection ought to make him annoying, but doesn't. You'll be mighty entertained.
Gone Over by David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar - The authors of this riveting historical novel take that marginal Falstaff of the American Revolution, Israel Potter, and give him a life story worth of Flashman. And the most amazing part is that for all we know, it might all be true! Makes for great reading in
Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millett - A collection of short stories dealing mostly with pets - and yet there's no mawkish sentimentality, no thinly-veiled 'bomb the puppy mills' rhetoric, and damn few happy endings. What you get instead is Millett's powerful prose on every page, insisting that these stories (most of the plot summaries of which make them sound, shall we say, slight) are important. She'll convince you.
The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer -This one came the closest of all these to making the Best Fiction list - and almost solely on the basis of Eisdorfer's masterful central creation, Susan Rose, the slatternly, opinionated, complexly lovable wet nurse of the book's title. Watching her by turns hilarious and appalling misadventures among the high and low of Victorian England will give you a fantastic reading experience - one you should certainly avail yourself of, either at the library or when this odd, daring book comes out in paperback.
Jack Wakes Up by Seth Harwood - Jack Palms, the rugged has-been actor at the heart of Harwood's day-glo noir, is a trouble-magnet, and Harwood is extremely good at dishing up that all kinds of trouble in this slim but muscular book. The story is sharp, funny, and compulsively readable.
Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper - If there's anything more jolting, uncompromising, and bizarrely individualistic than a Dennis Cooper novel, it's a Dennis Cooper short story, and here are a bunch, blasting at you without a smile or a pulled punch in the bunch. Cooper's fictional world is full of users and people who want to be used, and at its best, it's better than almost any other writing out there, even if only about a hundred people read it.
Manituana by Wu Ming - This is American colonial fiction like you've never read it before, served up by a multi-person writing group of very disparate personalities - and yet the seams hardly show at all, and what conflicting narrative impulses there are serve only to strengthen this odd, engrossing tale of a Mohawk nation caught between two incomprehensible forces. This will be one of the strangest and most memorable novels you read all year.
Makers by Cory Doctorow - It seemed impossible to top Doctorow's epic, era-defining Little Brother, and this book doesn't - but it comes really close! Reading it, you lose track of just how many of our current society's idiocies it's riffing and lampooning, and it's all done with Doctorow's by-now trademark biting wit and off-kilter narrative jazz. The heroes are once again disillusioned hackers with nothing better to do, and the book is once again impossible to put down.
The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Fleming - It seems like just last year that I was condemning novels set in contemporary times that contort all over themselves to jazz up some era of the past in order to further their own silly plots, and on the surface this book looks like yet another example of that - with a little actual time-travel thrown in to capture the audience of a certain well-known popular novel from a few year ago. But there's so much more going on here, and all of it so intelligently done, that all my objections go out the window. Much like the hokey but effective John Maxim novel Time Out of Mind (another title I meant to get to here at Stevereads, alas), this book puts 19th century New York at the focal point of temporal disruptions - but in this case they extend all the way to the far-flung kingdom of the title. This is a completely invigorating debut.
Elegy Beach by Steven Boyett - This is the first book of Boyett's to come to my attention (drawn, in part, by the simple-yet-evocative cover), and boy, is it good! Years ago, the Change swept through the world, disabling higher technology and enabling something that looks a lot like magic, and some of the inhabitants of the resulting world would like to try Changing things back. Several after-the-change conventions are stood on their head in these pages - playfully, and yet the author takes his story very seriously. One of the best science fiction novels I read this year.
Faces in the Pool by Jonathan Gash - Lovejoy is back - a jubilant statement that will baffle newcomers but bring joy to all of us who are wondering just how long we'll still have all these old British standbys we've loved so much for so long (Inspector Morse having died, and readers having been forced to see the saddest three words in the English language: No more Rumpole). The most nimble thing about this latest caper is that it will equally please both newcomers and old fans of Gash's irrepressible main character.
2009 Teen Fiction Honor Roll:
The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd - It's easy enough for
ordinary people to feel like space aliens when forced to spend any time in Iowa, and the fully-realized young protagonist of Nick Burd's immensely enjoyable novel is anything but ordinary - at least he thinks so. On one level, this is a fairly standard tale of teen alienation (see Execution, Texas: 1987 or Clay's Way for other excellent examples), but Burd's really sweet prose elevates it from all its competition this year.
Dull Boy by Sarah Cross - He has superpowers, yes, but fitting in and being comfortable in his own skin aren't among them - Sarah Cross' main character reflexively hides his extra abilities from everybody, but eventually he meets other teens with weird abilities, and from there, can a super-villain be far behind? Dull Boy is a good old-fashioned hoot; when the ending makes a sequel fairly obvious, you'll cheer at the prospect.
Crows and Cards by Joseph Helgerson - It's the easiest thing in the world to imitate Mark Twain poorly - hundreds of writers have made a decent living at it, including Twain. The wonder of Helgerson's book (with several winning pencil-sketches by artist/fellow super-hottie Peter DeSevier) is that it completely succeeds, on both its own merits and Twain's. The old boy would have been proud of this book - and then he would have invested in a special seaweed-based print run, and both he and the author would have gone bankrupt. So perhaps it's better they haven't met yet.
Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan - Brennan's fantastic book is based on a time-honored literary axiom well known to Homer: nothing sells a story like super-hotties with deadly combat skills! The embattled teenage brothers here will win the hearts of their young female readers and keep the young male readers turning pages - talk about supernatural feats!
Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logsted - Love! Lust! Longing! Crippling disfigurement! In a weird and utterly memorable novel, Baratz-Logsted pushes about a dozen boundaries of the teen fiction genre - and along the way tells a story that's ultimately very touching.
Breathless by Lurlene McDaniel - This novel - about a champion teen swimmer who faces cancer, possible amputation, and deadly complications - hits hard and fast and never cushions anything for its readers. McDaniel's greatest strength as a writer is her willingness not only to put her young characters into physical and ethical situations that would challenge people three times their age but to let them find their own way through those challenges, without recourse either to quick fixes or cheap sentimentality. It's easy to imagine the bored, excellent young reader she's attempting to snare with writing this good, but bored, excellent readers of the adult persuasion will like it too.
Intertwined by Gena Showalter - The author is manically prolific, but we can hardly fault her for that! The teenage boy at the center of this gripping book has several radically different souls living inside him, each of which wants everything its own way. If somebody's come up with a better allegory for young adulthood, I haven't read it.
Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo - What begins as a fairly simple story of a boy trying to find out about his missing sister turns into a wonderfully complex and whimsical novel about the totally unexpected ways fate can come crashing down on somebody like an ... well, you get the point. By no means let the 'young readers' for whom this enchanting book is nominally slated have all the fun - read it for yoursel, it'll touch your heart.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfield - Westerfield is a publishing institution unto himself, and on display in this fun, fantastic novel are some of the reasons why: he's got a great ear for dialogue, he's adept at twisting his plots until they'll grip just about anybody, and he's not above a little daylight robbery when it comes to concepts other writers have sketched out first. Thus, in this book about an alternate World War One fought between the forces of technology and those of 'soft' science (often indistinguishable from magic), where cadets serve on giant living airships, readers will no doubt notice the odd detail here or there they may have encountered in other fantasy novels (or graphic novels). Westerfield's great skill is his ability to take those various elements and make a whole new soup out of them, and he certainly does that here. The best parts of this book have very little to do with the science fiction or fantasy involved and everything to do with the dynamics of people looking past the prejudices with which they've been raised their whole lives.
Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick - The book that made waves based solely on its captivating cover is built around a basic plot that will strike a Twilight note in all its readers: a socially reserved (yet stunningly gorgeous, of course) high school girl falls in lust with a mysterious bad boy (who's stunningly gorgeous, of course) even though there's plainly more to him than meets the eye. The thing that saves Fitzpatrick's book is its fervent conviction in its own wares (plus Fitzpatrick's engaging way with a sentence). There's more planning and narrative sense in this one volume (the first of a series, it seems) than in several hundred panting pages of ... those other books. And the cover certainly doesn't hurt.
Candor by Pam Bachorz - Granted, selling teen readers on the premise that everybody's out to get them is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but even so, Bachorz's wonderfully creepy Stepford-esque novel believes in its premise so strongly that it makes you believe as well. There's some very strong plotting here, and lots of snappy, first-rate dialogue, and the obvious social issues are explored with a lot more intelligence than the cover's obvious tag-line would lead you to believe. And I'm betting my last quatloo there's a geeky comic book allusion in the very title, a nod to a tiny city in a glass bottle as a metaphor for a world with no expectation of privacy ...
2009 Nonfiction Honor Roll:
Master of War by Benson Bobrick - Was he the unimaginative paper-pusher that he seems to be in the famous memoirs written by his rival generals, or was George Thomas perhaps the greatest overlooked figure of the American Civil War? No matter how you answer the question, Bobrick's assured book will rivet you - here's one of our greatest living historians, really digging into his latest subject.
The Sibley Guide to Trees - If you'd have told me last year that David Sibley could make trees as interesting as he's made birds, I'd have thought you were barking up the wrong one ... and I'd have been wrong! This wonderful book makes the furniture of the world utterly fascinating - John Evelyn, bless his boring soul, would have been overjoye
Flight from the Reich by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt - In concentrating so much on the millions of lives the Third Reich extinguished, historians have often overlooked the many further millions whose lives were spared but radically fractured - and that's a shame, since Dwork and Van Der Pelt amply demonstrate here that those lives make gripping, though grim, reading.
The North American Porcupine by Uldis Roze - Everything you'd ever want to know about this dim but lovable American gnawer, the fat, friendly North American porcupine! There's natural history here, plenty of anecdotes (none, alas, featuring outstanding cognitive traits... we're talking basset hound-level here, folks ...), and even some facts and figures for the boring kids in the front of the bus!
The Thirty Years War by Peter Wilson - This transformative conflict in European history is here given the definitive - and hugely appealing - popular narrative it's always deserved. Wilson is superb on battles, superb on social disruptions, superb on personalities ... in short, you're in
really good hands.
Reading in the Brain by Stanislaus Deheane - By turns incredibly informative and downright creepy, this up-to-date illumination of the very activity in which you're right now engaged (not that one - reading, you filthy thing!) ought to be ultimately disillusioning- after all, nobody wants to think firing neurons have anything to do with loving a book - but in the end, probably due to Deheane's unassuming, optimistic prose style - you're even more in love with the homely skill.
The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown - Brown takes Communism - most especially in its biggest, scariest avatar, the Soviet Union - as exactly what it is: the most handy textbook study of a political life-cycle as we're likely to get in recent history. And he does an always steady often epic job recounting that cycle on all its fronts. Some of you will have lived through a part of this history - and all of you should read about it!
Sweet Thunder by Wil Haygood- The raucous life and times of the great boxer and decent human being Sugar Ray Robinson, told with verve and tough-sensitive insight. From the Harlem Renaissance to segregation to killing a man in the ring, this book takes its readers through an epic American life - and you know if I'm praising a sports book, it's got to have more than just sports to recommend it! This one does.
Mile-High Fever by Dennis Drabelle - Those of you co*******ers who only know the mighty Comstock Lode through f*****n' references on HBO'S mot*************n' series Deadwood owe it to yourselves to read Drabelle's fantastic book about the subject - at the very least, it'll teach you what you f*******n' well should have known already: the truth, told with this kind of spirit, trumps any mot************n' fantasy.
Hero of the Fleet by William Stone - The term 'old salt' might as well have been invented for William Stone, who was born in 1900, saw action with the British Navy in both the First and Second World Wars, and just recently died at the ripe old age of 108. A life such as he lived seems like something of a miracle in our more cautious modern era, and this memoir he produced is a miracle in its own right: it's circumspect without being tedious, grand without being grandiose, and best of all proud without being boastful. If it ever gets any kind of distribution in the United States, you're all urged most heartily to read it.
Central Park in the Dark by Marie Winn - The disarmingly teeming wilderness at the heart of New York City has been the subject of intrepid natural histories before, but Winn carries hers off with an extra dash of sparkle and an enviably smooth way with exposition. Even nature-loving New Yorkers (a seeming contradiction in terms, yet their name is legion) will find facts and insights here they never encountered before, in this very careful, very loving examination of one of the world's strangest little biospheres.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Mammals - Guide book/reference books like this one are fairly common new arrivals in Western bookstores, and this Princeton volume has no shortage of competitors in its niche market. It blows them all out of the water so easily, so thoroughly, that the very best of the rest can't bear comparison in the same paragraph
The Greek Poets by Peter Constantine - It's only when you start to think about the sheer span of time and work involved in this magnificent volume - a thousand poems written over three thousand years - that you begin to see the massively complex job Peter Constantine and his team of editors attempted - and that you begin to appreciate how wonderfully they succeeded. A century ago, an Oxford don famously deadpanned "One feels so rotten about the Greeks, because one is so permanently indebted to them." Reading this volume, you'll feel something of the same staggering cultural debt (it almost equals the achievement of Ireland!) - but without the rotten part, I hope. This is a keeper for your permanent poetry library.
Lords of the Sea by John Hale - The insistent conclusion of this great, thrilling work of ancient history - that high culture could not exist without war, that it's a luxury only the guaranteed peace of war-footing can make possible - won't sit well with those of a certain Cantabridgian mindset, but Hale's case couldn't be more compellingly put, and along the way he displays over and over again an uncanny and extremely effective ability to transport his readers into the ethos and physical reality of ancient Greece. In many ways the strongest volume of our concluding triple-blast of Greek history!
Travelling Heroes by Robin Lane Fox - The opening schematic of this great beguiling echo-chamber of a book, the framing meditation on travel, speed, and concept of place in Homer and Homeric times, is just the smallest beginning of the riches Fox lavishes on his readers in his latest book. Fox's work has grown to become as brilliant and occasionally weird as the ancient culture he studies, and this book likewise defies easy categorization. Certainly Homer runs all through it like the weave of a tapestry, but it would be equally accurate to say it's just an extended ramble-session by Fox himself - there are ample asides and digressions, and even the central concern, about what motion meant to Homer and the ancient world, serves handily as a metaphor for restlessness. In many ways, this book should have been at the top of my Best Nonfiction of the Year list, and the reason it wasn't is at least honest: I don't think I understood it sufficiently - in all its moods and implications - to put it there. Do yourself a favor: familiarize yourself with Homer, then dive into this book.
And to finish things off this year, I'm concluding with Great Moments in Comics, specifically the greatest moment in comics in 2009 - and those of you who know me will have seen this coming for about eleven months now. The comic in question is the venerable Justice Society of America, in a storyline from early this year. The team has been joined temporarily by an alternate-universe Superman, an older, more world-weary Man of Steel who accompanies the team on a few adventures before being returned to his own reality. Upon his disappearance, his JSA teammates are naturally curious to know what happens to him in his own universe - does he go on to live a happy life? And thanks to the writing of Geoff Johns and the marvelous artwork of Alex Ross, we readers get to see that life as it extends over a thousand years of alternate history, from the death of Batman to several Earth-shattering natural cataclysms ... and finally, to the rise of the Legion of Super-Heroes, in whose front ranks fly the youngest bearers of that legendary "S" symbol. And in the enthusiastic crowd below, there's one very old man with a knowing smile - and just the faintest wisp of a famous spitcurl of hair.
It's been a great year here. Thank you all, more than I can say.