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FICTION

Diaz, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

(A funny, ingenious, heartbreaking book about a Dominican SF nerd in New Jersey. Wonderfully written.)

Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
(Finally got around to reading this one. Understatement used like a hammer on the soul.)

Korelitz, You Should Have Known

(A woman’s husband is accused of murder. She deals with the fallout. This one’s a different kind of detective story / thriller, because the focus is less on the psychopath than on the psychology of the people manipulated by them)

Malllerman, Birdbox

If you’re looking for a suspenseful, creepy-as-hell horror novel, pick up this one.  A survivor of the apocalypse tries to protect two children from monsters (?) that drive you mad if you see them. Easy. right? Just wear a blindfold every time you go outside… into a world of monsters and murderous lunatics. Bloody. Hell.

Marshall, Gifts for the Ones Who Come After

A great, eclectic collection of creepy and odd stories from this year’s winner of the Shirley Jackson award.

NON-FICTION

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time

Egan’s unflinching look at the American Dustbowl. The analogy to climate change is there, but never heavy-handed.

Price, The Pixar Touch

Not your usual success story. First, this book eviscerates the Steve Jobs myth. Instead, it looks at the would-be artists who parlayed their tech jobs into movie-making. It provides an entertaining narrative about the failures, obstacles, hardships, and sheer perseverance that accompany any dream of artistic success in the States.

Fischer, A Kim-Jong Il Production

Did you know Kim-Jong-Il was an enormous film buff who kidnapped his favorite director and actress to force them to make movies for him? Did you know that the director and actress were bitter exes who fell back in love while trying to escape their North Korean movie-making prison?  This true story reads like a black political comedy / Hollywood satire with a surprisingly romantic heart.

Leovy, Ghettoside

A Serial-like analysis of a single murder case that becomes a compelling analysis of the relationship between poor black communities, the police, and the justice system. It’s a page-turner and an important read.

Macdonald, H is for Hawk

A woman starts training a goshawk following death of her father. The history of hawking, the repressed homosexuality of “Sword and the Stone” author T.H. White, and astute nature watching somehow combine to make a brilliant, beautiful book.

akashiver: (avatar)
Aaaand here's the non-fiction list.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Finally read this one, and wow. A profoundly affecting "Indian" history of westward expansion. Yes, there are certain archaeological claims it makes that have since been called into question, but this book remains a painfully eye-opening account of the "Indian Wars' of 1860-1890. It inspired me to start looking into the history of western Canadian settlement, which I knew little about and had never thought to particularly question.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Although Hubbard's name gets tossed around a lot in SF studies I'd never read an account of his rise to cult-leader status, let alone the disturbing aftermath as scientology transitioned into a "religion." Structured around the conversion & rejection of a prominent Hollywood scientologist, this book is worth reading on multiple levels: as a fascinating cultural history, as a profile of indoctrination, and of abusive personalities. Also, Tom Cruise.

Nothing to Envy: Everyday Lives in North Korea

A sometimes charming, mostly terrifying account of the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected to South Korea. I found myself rooting, retroactively, for the young starcrossed lovers to escape and the elderly Party loyalist to see the light and escape before her family starved to death. A fascinating - and horrifying - insight into life in a truly Orwellian society.

The Black Count

Born on Haiti, Alex Dumas, the mixed-race former slave, rose to become a French aristocrat and military hero before running foul of Napoleon. His adventurous life was later used by his son, Alexandre Dumas, as the inspiration for characters and events in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. An adventurous look at Romantic era race relations in Europe - a story American cinema and history tends to ignore.

The Emperor of all Maladies

I put off reading this book for a long time because, quite frankly, I thought this history of cancer and its treatment would strike too close to home. But Bannerjee's history of the evolution of cancer treatment is highly readable and provides a grim insight into the failures as well as successes of medical research. It also is clearly written and helped me get a better grasp on the language of 'precancer,' 'clinical trial' and 'chemotherapy' actually means.

Honorable Mention:

Capital in the Twenty First Century

Probably one of the most important books of the year, but - frankly - not the most readable, Pekkety's empiricist history of capitalism from the 18thC onward buries ''trickle  down' economics and provides a grim, number-driven picture of our century's rising inequality. The first and last chapters are the most important, so if you want to know what people are talking about, go read those.
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This year I read 76 books for pleasure: non fiction and fiction with a generous helping of SF and New York literary-awards type books. Here are my favourites.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)

FICTION

Station 11

I picked up this 'literary apocalypse' novel expecting another THE ROAD. What I got was something I'd never read before: a beautiful apocalypse. STATION 11 interrogates art, human connection, and the meaning of life in a matter-of-fact postapocalyptic setting. I can describe the plot in trite catchphrases (it's SLINGS AND ARROWS meets THE STAND!) -- but what's great about this book is hard to put into words. Let's just say it's about a famous Shakespearean actor who dies onstage, and a lethal flu epidemic, and a new generation using art to survive in a brave new world. If you're a writer, you should read this book.

The Paying Guests

Of all the "literary" books I read this year, this one was my favourite. It's a character study of a woman out of step with her times, who discovers she's not as brave or ethical as she believed herself to be. Also, it's a page-turner about illicit love and murder. And it's beautifully written.

Fool's Assassin

Robin Hobb's latest may win no grand literary awards, but it was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year. Hobb sets her novels in a high fantasy world, but it's the domestic details that grip the reader and anchor the plot. I don't know how she does it. Note: if you've never read Hobb's novels before *don't* start with this one. Go back and read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, or even ROYAL ASSASSIN first.

Annihilation/Authority

I haven't read the last book in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, otherwise I might have three titles heading this entry. An "environmental disaster" (or was it?) has produced a mysterious zone of biological weirdness called Area X. Governments send expeditions to investigate it. Things go horribly wrong.

ANNIHILATION won my love for situating me inside the deteriorating consciousness of a biologist trying to preserve her sanity on a bizarrre jungle expedition. (Scientific explorers going mad! Love!)

AUTHORITY transfers that creepiness into bureaucracy, plunging its pov character into a 'jungle' of a new workplace. (Uncanny workplaces! Love!) It also features one of the creepiest scenes I read in any book this year.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

This is a clever puzzle box  of a novel -- perhaps too clever to be widely successful. Still, if you enjoy trying to outhink unreliable narrators, you should check it out. The plot: Charles Jessold was a brilliant young composer who killed two people and then himself. A music critic narrates the story of his own very peripheral relationship with the doomed genius. It's a dull tale - at first. Then we get another version. And another. And things get darker and more twisted every time.

The Secret History

Finally got around to reading this study in murder, intimate friendships, and what people will do to belong to a group. As with many books of this type the real character of interest is the narrator, a young man from a lower class background determined to fit in with an elite group of students at a private college. And it has a great opening line: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

Honorable Mention:

Life after Life. A child is born, dies, restarts her life, is born, dies, restarts... This must have been a very hard novel to write. Atkinson doesn't completely pull it off, imo, but the result is a highly unusual and very readable novel.
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Looking for book recommendations? My list of the best books I've read for fun this year:

1) Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (fiction) - A young teenager deals with death of uncle. And it's bloody, bloody brilliant.

2) Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction) - Housewife discovers butterfly migration and then herself. Some of the best characterization I read this year.

3) Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction) - Dry but compelling overview of parents whose children belong to a different identity category from them (autistic, deaf, musical prodigies, deaf, criminal etc.)

4) The Last Policeman/Countdown City by Ben Winters (SF/mystery) - Detective ignores apocalypse, focuses on solving crimes. Tackles some big philosophical issues in a convincing genre pairing. Mystery lovers - check this one out.

5) We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (fiction) - Young woman grapples with fallout after being raised to think of a chimp as her sister.

6) The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (YA fantasy) - For once, a YA novel that both made me root for its romance and seriously worry about the fate of the heroine. Also, it has terrifying carnivorous horses.

7) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (SF) - Tight plot, interesting lead.

8) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (memoir/graphic novel) - Bechdel describes her belated discovery of her dead father's secret homosexual life in graphic novel form.

9) On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliott House (non-fiction) - Good overview of contemporary Saudi and its issues.

10) Wild by Cheryl Strayed (memoir) - It almost convinced me to hike the PCT, and that's saying something.
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Yep, I'm alive. And I now have a revised draft of my academic book manuscript, even if there's still some tweaking to be done. So I emerge from out of my hermit hole for a quick "best of" roundup of the books I've read for pleasure this year. Just in time for Christmas!

Books read for Pleasure:

Memorable Fantasy novels:

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death?

Okorafor takes the familiar fantasy quest narrative, moves it to post-apocalyptic Africa, anchors it with a strong female protagonist, weaves in interesting postcolonial themes, and includes a brutal scene depicting female circumcision that's going to stick with me for years to come. With that description I've either turned you off or on this book. You decide.

Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

It's unfortunate that Mechanique and The Night Circus came out in the same year, because they're both lovely examples of magic-realist circus fabulism. But Valentine's writing is haunted by the trauma of war and by visions of flight, and in the end, I thought it was just splendid. By a hair, Mechanique takes the "best novel about a fantasy circus" award for 2012.


Urban Fantasy Debut, Honorable Mention:

If you've read the rest of this list you'll notice that I've included a suspicious number of books whose descriptions include the word "death" or "murder." 

You know what book is NOT all about death and/or murder? And is frothy fun with an innovative magic system?

Michael Underwood's Geekomancy. In which characters "power-up" for battles by watching Buffy and The Matrix, because in this world, being able to recall dialogue from The Princess Bride translates into epic magic sword-fighting abilities. Mike's a friend of mine and his debut novel's a geekarific blast.

Memorable YA:

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

2 smart teens meet at a cancer support group and fall in love. The narrator, 16 year old Hazel, let's us know from the first page that she has a terminal diagnosis. As she and everyone around her know, this love story will not have a happy ending. But Hazel's story is witty, sharply-observed  compelling and -- like love itself -- worth the trip.

Best Lit Award Winner:

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

I don't know how Mantel managed to make a stream-of-consciousness novel about Thomas Cromwell so interesting the first time round, let alone for a sequel. If anything, Bring Up the Bodies is even better than Wolf Hall. This time, Cromwell's scheming not only serves Henry VIII's whims but Cromwell's desire to avenge his mentor's death. A bloody good book on all levels.

Memorable Psychological Thriller #1

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

This was the year Flynn broke through with Gone Girl, the mystery every book club loved to read. But while I liked Gone Girl, Dark Places -- Flynn's 2nd novel -- was the one that really blew me away. The premise: as a 7 year old Libby Day famously survived the massacre of her family and served as the key witness in the trial of her older brother. 25 years later, manipulative Libby has blown through her charity money and is desperate for cash. So when a macabre club obsessed with notorious crimes invites her to be a paid guest speaker at one of their meetings, Libby is willing to go. What she doesn't expect is for the questions they ask to stir up ones of her own.

Flynn has a great command of voice, and it's on full display here as she jumps between time periods and points of view. Skillfully done.

Memorable Psychological Thriller #2

Tana French, Broken Harbor

It's not quite as memorable as In the Woods, but Broken Harbor is French's best since her debut. There's just something... unsettling about this story of a detective called in to investigate a horrific murder in a  nearly-empty Irish housing development. The murder seems straightforward, but like the collapse of the Irish housing economy, so much turns on perception. And perceptions can't be trusted. For those of you who read Freud's essay on the Uncanny: Exhibit A.

Memorable Non-Fiction

Katherine Boo, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

I heard Boo speak when she came to Delaware. Having heard her stories of the personal risks she took in investigating the murder of street kids in Mumbai, I think the thing that impressed me the most about the book is: none of those stories are there. Bucking the usual investigative non-fiction trend, Boo leaves herself out of this book entirely. Instead, we get to witness the unfolding lives of Mumbai slum-dwellers as though we're flies on the wall. The people we meet are memorable and their stories are devoid of the expected cliches of struggle and triumph. Well worth the read.

Preston and Stezi, The Monster of Florence

What if you decided to research an old murder case as famous in Italy as the Jack the Ripper murders are in the Anglophone world? What if, thanks to a corrupt Italian police system, you became a suspect? This non-fiction story is a jaw-dropping narrative about random - and institutional - forms of evil.

Allende, The Sum of Our Days

Didion's Blue Nights was excellent, but f***ing depressing. In contrast, Allende's description of the years following the death of her daughter is warm, poignant, and has stories about hallucinogenic tea and domestic scandals. So this one's my pick.

Best Academic Book (I.E. Book not read for pleasure)

Lauren Benton. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This meticulously researched history of legal geographies examines the ways that certain types of space -- mountains, rivers, oceans etc. -- challenged imperial sovereignty. Benton convincingly argues that certain types of legal problems -- mutinies, for example -- became associated with certain types of anomalous space. For those of us interested in imperialism and geography, Benton's book is a fascinating and elucidating read.
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The amazing Susan Gubar's Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer is being released on April 30th. A brilliant feminist scholar and (full disclosure) one of the most inspirational teachers I've had, Susan was diagnosed in 2008 with ovarian cancer. In her latest book, she weaves a memoir of her illness together with a polemic on the state of women's health care in America.

From Publisher's Weekly:
Feminist author and scholar Gubar received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2008, and the then 63-year-old author underwent the radical surgical procedure called debulking, which removes many of the organs in a woman’s lower abdomen. Gubar’s memoir is not easy reading. She recounts in detail the grotesque procedures and the horrendous pain and humiliation she endured. The author ponders why major advances have mounted up for the treatment of breast cancer, but little has changed in treating ovarian cancer. Gubar weaves her personal story into a discussion of art, literature, and statements from other cancer patients. The author recounts the strength and care she received from family and friends, especially her husband, from her diagnosis through treatment to remission. She then finds herself confronted with a choice. “Either I have a third abdominal surgery that comes with its own complications or I suffer from infections preventing future therapies that would extend my life.” Gubar wrote her memoir for one reason: “my central motive consists of a fierce belief that something must be done to rectify the miserable inadequacies of current medical responses to ovarian cancer.” Gubar’s passionate and brave polemic is critical reading for anyone concerned with the state of women’s health care in America. (Apr.)
akashiver: (People who read too much!)
Back in August I discussed the best non-fiction books and best fiction books I’d read so far in 2011. In total, I ended up reading about 87 books in 2011. Here's my reading summary for the second half of the year.

Best Non-fiction (since August)
Read more... )

Best Fiction (since August)
Read more... )

Best Short Story Collections

Read more... )
akashiver: (People who read too much!)

Fiction (in no particular order)

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

One of my colleagues recommended this children's fantasy to me. It's a quirky, neo-Victorian fantasy narrated in part by a sarcastic, enslaved
djinni. After reading that sentence, you already know if this is your thing or not. Enjoy.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Enough said.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This isn't usually my kind of book, but it's so well done, I ended up plowing right through it. Egan has a masterful command of language and character. Even if you're not a "lit fic" type, it's worth having a look at this one.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

An astonishing high fantasy debut. I've already had many things to say about how good it is, so if you like fantasy, go read it already.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

This is a very different type of fiction than I'm used to. It doesn't pander to the reader, doesn't bother explaining the professional jargon, just drops you into the middle of Cold War espionage and lets you watch what unfolds. Also, I love the dialog. More supervillains should talk the way these spies do.

Short Story Collections


What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver

Carver's often talked about as a symbol of What MFA Programs Try To Write. You know what? His stories bear very little resemblance to the bad lit prose I've read. He had a brilliant, economical grasp of character and situation, and his stories are precisely-cut gems of pain.

There once lived a woman who tried to kill her neighbor's baby by Li︠u︡dmila Petrushevskai︠a︡ 

Another short story that shows what can be done with brevity, and in this case, the form of the fairy tale. Very different from any other short stories I've read.

akashiver: (People who read too much!)

Oh, hell. Given that I've done one book review, and I'm officially Taking the Night Off from Work, why not do them all?

According to my google books record, I've read 48 books for pleasure so far this year. These are the best of them:

Non Fiction

1) The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A gripping page-turner that made me contemplate African-Americans' relationship to  medicine in a new light.

2) Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (Audiobook)

Oh, this book made me so mad! It's an astonishing and poignient account of a) Hurricane Katrina, b) what it means to be Muslim in America, and c) reasons why you should not trust your government. The audiobook was brilliant. I recommend it.

3) The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz ... by Deborah Blum

An awkwardly written but fascinating account of how one man turned the office of city coroner into a respectable (and effective) crime-solving unit. I'd never heard of cases like the New Jersey Radium Poisoning before, so they provided entertaining and sometimes frightening insights into early 20C America. After reading this book I stopped being blase about household chemicals and started wearing plastic gloves while cleaning.

4) In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

The second half of this book was disappointing, but the first half was a very compelling account of what it's like to be standing in the path of history, unaware that the light ahead is an oncoming train.


Memoir (aka "Might be Fiction for all I know")

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr (Audio Book)

I didn't like "The Liar's Club" so I didn't expect to like this memoir. However, I found Karr's meditation on spirituality very compelling. It helped that she herself was reading the audio book; it made the "voice" of the narrative make more sense, and made Karr herself seem less obnoxious.

Next up: fiction
akashiver: (People who read too much!)

So, on the advice of a CW friend, I gave Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind another try, and... liked it.

This is unexpected, because TNOTW is very much a wish-fulfillment story about a Super-Talented, Awesome Character Whose Only Flaws Make Him Yet More Awesome. In short, it's the kind of thing I usually despise. But TNOTW works, in part because of the confidence of the storytelling, and in part because of the layered narration.
 
Kvothe is presented as a figure of mystery in the first two chapters, which means by the time he gets around to telling his story, I genuinely wanted to find out more about him. It's a clever narrative trick, and one I'll have to remember.
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Meteorologists in Westeros seem to have a fairly easy job. Seasons can last decades, after all, so predicting the weather involves little more than looking out a window and saying, "the next ten years will be kinda like this."

Seeing the number of people who get slaughtered in this series makes me think that the Westeros meteorologists (and SPOILER     this book suggests they do exist     )  could enhance their services by offering a "Vengeance Index." It'd be like a pollen index, only showing the likelihood of your being killed horribly for something that you may (or may not) have done.

Example of the Vengeance Index in action:

Wife: "I'm thinking we should cancel the children's picnic today."

Husband: "Why? Does it look like Rape and Murder?"

Wife: "There's supposed to be showers of Rape and Murder all week."

Husband: "We could always move the picnic inside."

Wife: "I would, but the Vengeance Index is set at 'People Baked Into Pies."

Husband: "Not again."

 
See what I mean? Useful.
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... the book also known as "George R.R. Martin, hurry the hell up."

It's a propulsive read, a real page-turner, and I read it with a sense of exhilaration. It's nice to see some of these characters back in action again, and - yes - it's much better than the last book.

But its plot lacks an arc. At the end of the novel, the surviving characters are in different locations, basically dealing with the same issues they were at the beginning of the book. One of them *may* have decided to handle her problems a bit differently in the future... but the emphasis is on the "may." Her section closes without revealing what her future course of action will be.

If there was another book waiting, of course, I wouldn't mind that much. But facing another indefinite wait makes me cranky.

It's not that stuff didn't happen. Plenty of stuff happened. But plot didn't really happen, or if it did, it was confined to a few scenes in which a) characters met new Significant Characters, b) characters "leveled up" and c) a character apparently dies.

Speaking of which, if you want your deaths to have power, those corpses need to stay down. Likewise if you want to have a cast of thousands, and keep introducing new characters. Keep those corpses dead. I'll give you the odd shambling corpse, particularly North of the Wall, but this book's subtitle is not "Everybody Loves Zombies!" because we don't.

Now I sounds as though I didn't like the book, and I did. I ate the whole thing. I just felt it lacked arc-ishness.
akashiver: (People who read too much!)

I blog a lot about movies, but rarely about books. Go figure.

On the SF front, I recently read N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and really enjoyed it. The opening? Brilliant! The narrator's fragmented voice? Superb. This is the sort of literary styling that's hard to do, but Jemisin makes it look easy. She probably rides to work on a unicycle juggling fireballs.

Currently I'm working my way through Gaiman and Sarrantonio's Stories: All-New Tales, the premise of which seems to be, "lets get a bunch of literary types and fantasy types together and ask them to write page-turning fiction that's outside their comfort zone." So far the standouts are Roddy Doyle's "Blood," Michaewl Swanwick's "Goblin Lake," and Carolyn Parkhurst's "Unwell."

Speaking of short story collections, I just finished There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby, the World-fantasy-award winning collection of translated tales from Russian author and playwright Petrushevskaya. The stories are weird and unsettling in what I presume is a distinctively Soviet way. I find them hard to describe. I think my favourite was "A Mother's Farewell."

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