by More: An Agonizing Choice
Than Ten Best Books from Last Year
The Agony Column for February
by Rick Kleffel, Katie Dean Serena Trowbridge and Terry D'Auray
Yes, it took too
long. I know that, and I'll try to make moves to adjust for it. I'm
still trying to strike the balance between news
and columns, reviews and interviews. But what follows is not just
my work. It's the result of four reviewers who each spent their time
reading carefully and paying attention to every detail. I asked for "ten
best" lists and got a nice range, from Katie Dean's bare-bones
of classic literature to my own predictably bloated list. But I only
added one title to the ten, no fifteen no twenty, no twenty-one best
of last year.
We'll start this out simple, because, you know, simple is good. Simple
is clear. And Katie Dean is quite clear on what she liked from last
year. Here's what Katie had to say.
finally, my 10 best...it's quite a difficult thing to do. I've picked
read in 2003 rather than books published that year,
so, in no particular order, they are...
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Faber and Faber favorite.
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Dr Zhivago - Boris Pasternak
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
Jekyll and Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
Women in Love - D H Lawrence
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Bones - Alice Sebold
Northern Lights - Philip Pullman
as a Fake - Peter Carey
Quite a range and it was impossible to rank them as they're all quite
different, but they all have a few things in common - well written,
compelling and left me with something to think about afterwards.
And I hope this makes it clear that -- and why -- we manage to cover
a wide range of material on this site.
Serena Trowbridge had a bit more to say about her favorites of last
year. And she actually does what Terry D'Auray has accused me of wanting
to do. Terry says that given the chance, I'll read Flannery O'Connor's
'Wise Blood' (and, I might add, Stanislaw Lem's 'A Perfect
Vacuum') every year and use up spots on a ten-best with them. That
said, Serena's choices are once again, perhaps, not what you'd expect
from a website
with "..chrome steel vanadium chains, ladies and Gentlemen --
he cannot escape these chains!" that bind it to the world of
science fiction, fantasy and horror. And yes, I have seen 'King Kong'
a few too many times.
Top ten books for 2003 (Not necessarily published this year! And
not in any order as I just couldn’t manage that!)
Bones – Alice Sebold
to a masterpiece"
In a year where some awful things have happened and everyone is scared
to talk about them, this book stood out as unafraid, hopeful and
a light in the darkness. I know it seems grisly, and that everyone
is understandably afraid to let their children out of their sight,
but this is close to a masterpiece.
Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris
I’ve read and loved all her books, but this was the one where
the characters and story gripped me most. I couldn’t put it
down. She recreates the historical France as well as contemporary
places, and it’s absolutely enchanting. I love how she uses
magic, but not in a deus ex machina way.
Defying Hitler/The Meaning of Hitler – Sebastian Haffner
There are things that have happened in history that we owe it to the
world and our ancestors to understand. Turning a blind eye could
lead to history repeating, but anyone who reads these immaculate,
well researched but highly personal memoirs will understand that
crimes against humanity cannot be tolerated in a civilised world.
The Little Friend – Donna Tartt
I was fascinated, appalled and scared throughout. Still not sure
who did it though – answers on a postcard…it’s
been driving me mad ever since.
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Actually this is my favourite book of every year, but I reread it
as I was asked to do a reader’s guide to it to coincide with
the release of the film. It’s teenage innocence and childhood
cynicism; it’s also all the things I love about Britain and
bizarre British humour, and I laugh and cry all the way through
even after about 20 readings.
Tolkien – Michael White
All this fuss about Lord of the Rings – read the biog and see
the real man. This is a fantastically well-written biography with
lots of atmospheric colour, and is probably more readable than LOTR!
Anyway, he lived in my road in Birmingham…!
King Lear – William Shakespeare
Had to reread this to teach it, but everyone should read it. Forget
all the gothic books and dark films, this has madness, death, treachery,
war and even a touch of incest. I “did” it at A-level
and am still obsessed. A Thousand Acres of Sky by Jane Smiley gives
an excellent contemporary take on it.
Plays with the reader.
Do characters in a novel have their own consciousness? Do we, as
readers, really know how to draw the line between fact and fiction?
that this is discussed in a novel makes it delightfully post-modern,
but bit’s a cracking yarn as well. Highly recommended!
Feminine Gospels – Carol Ann Duffy
Even if you don’t like poetry you should read this. This is
narrative poetry at its best; Duffy is a master of a tale well told,
and makes good use of internal structure in poetry. I loved it – it’s
like listening to really good music played by a maestro, and that’s
how poetry should be.
Affinity – Sarah
This is a book that plays with the reader, and I do enjoy a bit of
textual interactivity. I like things that are miserable and Victorian,
so this was ideal for me anyway, but I especially liked the characters
realness, and the way people believe what they want to – all
the best books have characters that make you identify with them,
and this was definitely one of those.
Terry D'Auray couldn't quite confine herself to the usual "ten
best" list, and we're all the better for it. She has a rather
different take on the whole matter.
Rather than allow indecisiveness to result in immobility at the task
of judging entries for the “ten best” books I read in 2003
(or the “ten worst” for that matter), it’s far easier
to simply identify the memorable books – exceptionally good, astonishingly
bad, or just simply memorable – that made their way in front of
my eyes during the year. And it’s also a reminder that I need
to keep of a list of what I read, since my memory is becoming increasingly
I’m an unabashed, near drooling fan of books by George Pelecanos,
although it wasn’t always so. The first of his books I read, ‘Down
by the River Where the Dead Men Go’, was exceptionally well written,
but a bit Vachss-like for my tastes – too much grunge and way,
way too much booze. Can you get a hangover from the printed page? The
writing tempted me to try another a few years later, and either Pelecanos
mellowed (now how often do you find the adjective “mellow” in
a sentence about George Pelecanos) or I toughened, or both, but now
any year of good reading must include at least one of his books. This
year provided double pleasure. Having read ‘Right
as Rain’ previously,
I greedily devoured both the second and third books in the Strange/Quinn
to Pay’ and ‘Soul Circus’. No one
writing in the mystery genre today blends realistic, gritty urban violence
with human compassion quite like Pelecanos. With a prose style that
is lean, spare and visceral, Pelecanos writes of the cruel urban ghetto,
a world of stupidity, despair, depravity and violence, yet laces in
just enough poignancy and compassion to make it emotionally absorbing
and compelling. His slangy, cadenced language is hypnotic, his plotting
and pacing are superb, and his characters, flawed but familiar, are
strong and empathetic. I read his novels with a knot in my stomach at
the all too realistic and believable violence. He writes stories of
conflict, of race and racism, guns and violence, drugs and money, all
set in Washington DC, stories that are all the more memorable and vexing
for the lack of easy resolution or solutions to the conflicts they portray.
Pelecanos’ newest book, ‘Hard Revolution’, will be
released in January in a Dennis McMillan Limited Edition and in March
by Little Brown. In addition to looking forward to that, I’ve
also backtracked and picked up both ‘King Suckerman’ and ‘The
Sweet Forever’ in pristine first editions for “the vault” of
blue-chip books guaranteed to satisfy.
One of my favorite
authors, Dennis Lehane, veered in yet another new direction in 2003
Island’. Following his five-book
series featuring Boston detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro,
classics of the hardboiled detective genre, Lehane changed course in
2002 with ‘Mystic
River’, a superb novel of the effects
of violence on the lives of both victims and perpetrators. More far-reaching
and character driven than his past books, ‘Mystic River’ was
a compelling social commentary on violence and its aftermath, told in
pure, tough prose. With ‘Shutter Island’, Lehane ventured
into the territory of Ruth Rendell, creating a compelling story of psychological
suspense with what’s-real-what’s-surreal plotting. His characters,
drawn deftly and revealed slowly, are tormented, complex, and finely
layered. Lehane’s skill as a novelist ensures that the plot twists
in ‘Shutter Island’ ring true; he metes out shocking revelations
that are well grounded, yet still surprise.
I also relished the continuation of G.M. Ford’s compelling Frank
Corso series, reading both ‘Black River’ and ‘Blind
Eye’. Graduating from the lightweight Leo Waterman books of his
earlier writing days to darker stuff, Ford’s Corso series is bleak,
violent and rooted in the moral ambiguity of the times. Frank Corso
remains a sad and mysterious protagonist, and his sidekick, Meg Dougherty
is one of the best-written supporting characters in mystery fiction.
With this well plotted, hyper real and highly witty series, Ford is
proving himself to be a masterful writer of contemporary hardboiled
Does the world
really need another wisecracking smart-ass PI who loves both his guns
and his ladies? Well, yes, if it’s Duncan Sloan,
Bob Truluck’s wisecracking, smart-ass Florida PI who made his
second appearance in this year’s ‘Saw
pure hard-boiled pulp, Truluck delivers rapid-paced action, scintillating
similes and a rockin’ good time for readers with a yen for action-packed
adventures that are all entertainment. Heavy on in-your-face attitude,
light on anything brain-drainingly heavy, Sloan’s a slangy shot
of caffeine for those times when only a whip-snapping jolt will satisfy.
wait, who's doing the image choice here?
Also high on the year’s reading list were Carol O’Connell’s ‘Crime
School’, who’s original and ballsy protagonist Mallory never
fails to satisfy; Bill Pronzini, who thankfully put to rest the rumors
of the demise of "Nameless”, his long-standing detective
series protagonist, with the wonderful ‘Spook’; and Laurie
King’s stand-alone ‘Folly’, a rewarding story of self
discovery and mystery. In the offbeat-romp category, nothing can hold
a candle to Marius Brill’s over-the-top ‘Making
unbridled imagination, prose that is both witty and literary, and a
plot that veers from wild to wilder.
Late to the Party
Like most gluttonous
readers, I probably spend as much time reading about books and authors
as I do reading the books themselves, and I
always struggle with hype. Authors that are accorded heaps and piles
of praise across a broad section of media – newspapers, magazines
(general and specialty), highbrow and low, reviews, journals, and the
like – give me pause. What’s one to make of an author who’s
praised by Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker and Elle, and then
appears on “60 Minutes”? Ever wary of hyper-hyped authors
or books, I tend to pass them by rather than succumb to the phenom-du-jour.
It took me years to get beyond the hullabaloo about Harry Potter and
actually read one, and that one was quite enough, thank you.
bit of the gruesome.
As a result of my sensitive hype-meter, I like to think I’ve spared
myself some real horrors. On the other hand, I’ve also missed
some appealing gems, one horror-writer in particular, Chuck Palahniuk.
While Palahniuk is frequently described as the “reinventer” of
horror, his 2003 novel ‘Diary’ was labeled “mainstream”,
and if I’m going to read a horror writer, better mainstream than
avant-garde. ‘Diary’ turned out to be a delight, easily
one of the best books I read in 2003. The plot, while horrifically bizarre
and singularly twisted, was accessible to a mystery fan who savors realism
and a bit of the gruesome. And the language was simply sublime, scathingly
cynical, acerbic and muscularly lean, like many of the best hyper-modern
mystery writers. While still leery of the horror genre, Palahniuk’s
previous books now go in the sure-to-be read vault as an antidote of
originality to my normal hardboiled mystery fare.
I also finally read my first Lew Griffin novel by James Sallis, a prolific
and well-regarded mystery writer who often appears in the must read
lists of other well-regarded mystery writers. Beginning with the first
Long-Legged Fly’, followed shortly thereafter
by ‘Bluebottle’, Sallis’ stories, seeped in New Orleans
atmosphere and history, are social commentaries on race, economics and
the quest for peace and human connection in an unkind, often unjust,
world. Griffin is a black detective in a white world; he travels with
prostitutes, gangsters and petty crooks, and he is angry, isolated,
bereft, and utterly and engagingly human. Less mystery stories than
character stories, Sallis writes with a poetic grace that’s rare
in the genre. His prose is undeniably original, richly textured, soulful
and poignant. It’s nothing but good news that he has written many
Griffin novels, so I can blissfully play catch-up for some time to come.
The year 2003 was a winner for debut mysteries, with exceptional first
novels from Mark Haddon, Giles Blunt, Adrian McKinty and David Corbett.
Mark Haddon’s ‘the
curious incident of the dog in the night’ is
an engagingly original novel of an autistic teen’s inner and outer
demons. While setting out to discover who killed a neighbor’s
dog, autistic Christopher Boone instead uncovers the causes of the break
up of his family and the terrors and joys of an unfathomable world.
Written from the perspective of its teenage protagonist, ‘curious
incident’ is a story told straightforwardly and without emotion
that manages to generate remarkable resonance and human connectivity.
Smoothly blending humor, originality and compassion, “curious
incident” is an exceptional debut novel.
Giles Blunt’s ‘Forty
Words for Sorrow’ begins a new
police procedural series with an intriguing and icy chill. Policeman
John Cardinal and Lise Delorme, a fellow cop with a hidden agenda, work
to identify and capture a serial killer in the barren and frigid Canadian
town of Algonquin Bay. What sets ‘Forty Words’ apart from
the mainstream serial killer novel is its depth of characterization
and the evocative sense of place. Both the characters and the environment
have chilling undertones and the plotting and pacing are controlled
and suspenseful. Blunt’s next novel, 'The Delicate Storm, is high
on the to-be-read stack.
intriguing, icy chill.
‘Dead I Well
May Be’ is Adrian McKintey’s debut novel of
the unlucky Michael Forsythe, newly arrived in the US from Ireland,
and caught up in a world of petty and violent crime in the US and Mexico.
Mixing gangsters and drug lords with typical underworld actions and
totally atypical prison segments, McKinty’s novel is a masterful
story of betrayal and revenge written with a sure hand in tough, highly
readable prose. It wins my kudos for a gritty and original narrative.
Unquestionably my favorite debut novel of the year is David Corbett’s ‘The
Devil’s Redhead’. In a poignant love story and a tough
and violent exposition of rivaling ethnic drug lords in Northern California,
Corbett marries lost innocence and contemporary brutality with grace,
sensitivity and some of the most memorable prose of the year. Corbett's
characters mix action with self-reflection, violence with soul-searching,
to bare their psyches along with their fates. This is an emotional novel,
both beautiful and depressing - a haunting, unforgettable reading experience.
His second novel, ‘Done for a Dime’, even more acclaimed,
As I become more selective and well informed about what I choose to
read, big misses become increasingly rare. But this year, there were
a couple of true standouts. The first, Chris Simms’ ‘Between
the White Lines’, was billed as doing for driving what ‘Psycho’ did
for showers. Well, not by a long shot! With plotting that stretched
the credibility of one who’s credibility was willing to be stretched,
and prose that was heavy-handed and hollow, ‘Between the White
Lines’ utterly failed to deliver on its promised scariness and
turned into a true laugher. It’s out of here – no room on
the bookshelves for this.
Equally unsatisfying was Ben Rehder’s debut novel ‘Buck
Fever’. Ostensibly a Texas caper novel featuring game warden John
Marlin and a cast of characters who stand out only for the quantities
of beer they can guzzle, ‘Buck Fever’ is a Charles-Willeford-gone-wrong
story of Texas-sized hicks wrecking Texas-sized havoc. In prose that
is simplistic and clunky, the story lurched along without charm, without
humor and utterly without appeal. Rehder, of course, has written a sequel,
which won’t be finding its way to my house.
And finally, a book so not-to-my taste that I couldn’t finish
it, ‘Latex Monkey with Banana’ by Jonathan Worlde. Intrigued
by the title, which is undeniably wonderful, I found myself in the world
of a Puerto Rican musician on the trail of a serial killer who marks
each death with a latex monkey figurine sporting a three-inch penis
in one hand and a three-inch banana in the other. Oh please! This description
is sure to whet the appetite of any number of readers, who will now
set out to track down this little gem on their own.
caller can have my copy . (Ladies and gentlemen, we have
a winner -- er -- sort of -- I think! -- Rick Kleffel)
Newfound Guilty Pleasures
I confess that
I’ve become a fan of the commercially successful
body-count maestro John
Connolly. Way over the top in violence, but
with original and intriguing forays into the occult, Connolly manages
to tuck enough wit, humor, character and substance into otherwise relentlessly
brutal serial killer novels to provide a satisfying read. Connolly writes
far better than most best-selling suspense authors, and creates complex,
layered stories that make pure page turning palatable. A true guilty
McMillan goes where no others dare!
And finally, a book that only I seemed to like – Jim Nisbet’s ‘The
Price of a Ticket’, a messy, way too wordy and almost literally
unreadable book that is also hysterically funny, utterly bizarre, totally
absurd and, these many months later, still memorable. I’m glad
I stuck with it ‘till the end, because it seems to have found
a way to stick with me.
And finally my list.
Like many reviewers, I keep careful track of the books I read
and review, in part because somewhere along the line, I know I'll want
to make an annual list of my favorites. I found myself not just thinking
which books I liked the best, but rather, how my feelings towards the
books I had read last year -- and in previous years -- had changed.
Since I pick nearly all the books I read for myself, I read books that
I like. Finishing any book, I tend to have enjoyed it at one level or
another. But those positive feelings change as time goes by. It's not
that I feel less positive about any given book. It's more that I feel
less about a given book.
For me, the act of reading is primarily an act of memory. In reading,
I'm excavating the memory of another while manufacturing my own memory,
the memory of the reading experience. In a sense, books are very much
like the memory vacations that you can purchase in Philip K. Dick's
story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale'. The download speed is
just a lot slower, and that's part of the pleasure -- the reading experience.
That's why reading on vacations and reading vacations, which are not
necessarily the same thing, are so important. In general, I find that
if I'm enjoying other aspects of my life, I enjoy the books I'm reading
more. A book that you read on a wonderful vacation can't help but recall
the memories of that wonderful vacation. But that doesn't necessarily
translate to a more memorably enjoyable book. A lot of factors go into
It's impossible to ignore what other people thought of a book. This
can have both positive and negative consequences for your long-term
enjoyment of the work. If you read a book and have a muted reaction
to it, then find that it's being lionized left and right, it's tough
not to go back and revise your impression. The reverse can also be true;
if you love a book that's generally despised, it might lose its lustre.
And of course, both of these effects can be reversed if you're of a
contrary nature. I'm of a contrary nature. It also depends on who is
doing the talking. Some readers might be more influenced by what their
friends thought, while others might be more influenced by what the critics
thought. The critics have their biggest effect in getting you to read
a book. But even afterwards, a good critic might make you think twice
about your own opinion. You may not revise or even adjust it, but you'll
certainly engage in a mental debate with the critic. In general, what
others think about a book doesn't have that much sway over what we think
of a book, but it does factor in over the fullness of time.
In 2003, I read 84 books. Once again, I've posted
my annual reading list in spreadsheet form so that you can enjoy it in all its gory detail.
Since I've reviewed every single book I've read, there should be no
surprises. Alas, and I've lamented over this often in columns over the
years, I'm a slow reader. Part of this is because I have a lot of irons
in the fire; my time is limited. Part of this is because I have an unconscionable
interest in watching television, about which I refuse say more. And
part of this is because I often deliberately diffuse the reading experience,
so that I can soak up the ambience of what I'm reading. In the first
pass of the ten best books, I only managed to winnow down the field
to 21 -- no make that 22 with a last minute pull-in. That will have
In addition, there are a number of books I didn't read last year
for one reason or another -- usually involving scheduling around interviews
or reviews. Those books are nearly as important as the ones I did read.
This would include Alastair Reynolds 'Absolution Gap', Mary Gentle's
Stephenson's 'Quicksilver', George P. Pelecanos' 'Soul Circus', Walter
Jon Williams' 'The
Praxis', Dan Simmons' 'Ilium', and Jasper Fforde's
'The Well of Lost Plots'. These just came off the top of myhead; there
are an equal number that will occur to me as the days pass.
The list should probably be topped off with Graham Joyce's 'The
Facts of Life', a 2002 novel
that, like those above, wasn't read read until 2003, offset by a year. This novel is everything
a great novel should be. It's bursting with life, with joy and strangeness and
sorrow and death. The characters that comprise the complex and yet crystal clear
matriarchy at the center of the novel come crisply to life in Joyce's sparse prose.
For all the time that's covered, for all the emotional distance that Joyce takes you,
this is a remarkly slim, yet fulfilling novel. In a sense it's OK to put it in this
year's list; the prescient and always tasteful Gollanz brought it out late in 2002, but it
saw an American debut in 2003. Joyce is a thrillingly original novelist with a human vision
like no other.
Looking at the
whole list, I find that all of the books evoke strong memories. But
they aren’t always memories of the book itself.
What makes a book memorable, or enjoyable, or -- the best -- involves
much more than the simple content of the book. A book might interact
with what's going on about you, or provide a perfectly pleasant contrast
to what's going on about you. It might have a memorable plot that glues
your eyes to the pages and kicks your ass. It might have characters
you simply love reading about, characters you want as old friends, characters
you want to have a conversation -- or a shouting match -- with. You
may encounter unforgettable prose, either in small, discrete memorable
sound-bytes or in a lava-flow of poetic prose. A book that makes you
laugh, a lot, is a book you're likely to remember. A book you loan to
your friends, and they to theirs, is a book you're going to want back
and not likely to get back. Sometimes a book is simply a gateway to
an author's catalogue; in itself excellent yes, but as an introduction
to an author, invaluable. Sometimes books will simply tell you things
you never knew you needed to know, until the words went into your eyeballs.
Some books simply take one small bit of each of these positive qualities
and combine them in the perfect proportion.
gripping and memorable memoir.
At first I was working on a long list elucidating the wonderful properties
of each book in my list. Then, I got bored doing that, which suggested
you might get bored reading it. So instead, I went and ruthlessly ordered
my book in a totally unfair and often inaccurate list from one to twenty-one.
Make that twenty-two. I think, unless I added yet another.
I have to say that it was a great
year for first books. James Frey, Cory Doctorow, Mary Roach, Kirsten
J. Bishop -- each of them turned in an outstanding work the first time
out of the gate. Doctorow's 'Down
and Out in the Magic Kingdom' was
wise and funny, bubbling with ideas. When I read it, it felt a bit on
the light side, even though it was clearly smart as hell. In retrospect,
it seems not in the least bit light. Time has brought out the complexity
in my mind. I can go back and visit Doctorow's complicated world and
enjoy all the subtle nuances he brought to a work of science fiction
that was on the surface -- and what a surface -- just a hell of a lot
of fun. James Frey's 'A
Million Little Pieces', a non-fiction rehab
memoir seemed rather off-putting at first; thick, tiny type and oddly
punctuated. I have to admit that the cover image made me snatch it off
the table for the Fine Print crew more than the subject did. But once
I cracked the code, it turned into a gripping noirish thriller about
the rebel of the rehab unit. This one, over time, acquired a depth and
subtlety that wasn't apparent when I was reading it the first time around.
And the characters have taken on a life of their own; well, I guess
they already had one, but now I'm waiting anxiously to find out what
will happen next, and the author has promised we will find out.
Mary Roach and KJ Bishop were two first-time writers I heard a lot about
before I actually managed to get to read the books. But when I saw Roach
on Book Events, I knew I had to interview her, especially since she
was relatively local. I was prepared for an entertaining book, but not
for a book as consummately well-written as 'Stiff'. She manages an incredible
balancing act that doesn't feel at all like a balancing act. 'Stiff'
is also one of the best books to read aloud to your friends you could
hope to find, and a book to loan to them as well. Nobody expects to
enjoy this book as much as they inevitably do. It's great fun to get
back to those you loaned this book to and find out how much they enjoyed
it, how finely written it really is. And the interview was a blast for
everyone at the station.
I'd been hearing about KJ Bishop's fantasy 'The
Etched City' for months
before I managed to get a copy. Still, all I'd heard was that it was
a fantasy and quite good. I'd read a lot of fantasy last year, including
the behemoths of the fantasy world, Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind,
both for the first time. Now, make no mistake about it. Jordan and Goodkind
are skilled writers, and their books are well-crafted megalithic slabs
o' fantasy. If you're a fan of either author, you were probably quite
satisfied with their novels. But the images of those novels have faded
together, as one might expect since both novelists are working in the
nexus of well-known influences.
Bishop writes what is clearly, recognizably fantasy, yet she invests
it with an original vision that's both striking and poignant. Striking
we pretty much expect in a fantasy, poignant is a lot rarer. Her characters
and her world are finely written in a way that sticks with the reader
and grows. I can still feel the spaces between the words, between the
cities in Bishop's world. And her battle scenes, smaller in scale, shorter
in length, stand out more than the epics we've seen onscreen and on
the page. There's a distinctly personal feel to Bishop's work that hangs
on long after the book is closed.
Charlie Stross' 'Singularity
Sky' rode a wave of unhelpful hype, part
of which I fed. Charlie was the "it guy" of Worldcon, with
an appearance on every panel, even those that took place at the same
time -- making use of the temporal anomalies peculiar to the singularity,
no doubt -- and a Hugo nomination as well. I enjoyed the hell out of
his novel as I read it, but expected it to congeal in my mind, not unpack
over time. Like Cory Doctorow's work, Stross showed the virtues of science
fiction as a literature of ideas, as a littered path of ideas, tossed
off like flowers from a Rose Parade float. And, again like Doctorow,
he knows the virtues of humor. The whole novel is filled with the sort
of big-brained good humor that brings the concepts closer and keeps
the details entertaining. And looking back on it, you know, the main
thing is that this novel simply put, boggled my mind in the best possible
way. I could go right back, read it again and get an entirely new set
of ideas out of it.
There was a whole group of books last year, that while they weren't,
technically first books, felt like first books. Jeff VanderMeer's 'Veniss
Underground', was in fact, his first novel. It followed 'Cities of Saints
and Madmen' which, while not a novel, felt as whole and complete as
one. So I don't know exactly where to come down on 'Veniss Underground'
as a first novel, but I certainly know where it falls in my memory.
And that would be in the dank, scungy underpinnings, in the grottiest
recesses of where the strands of biological reality -- the undeniable
fleshiness of us, of our lives -- crawls upwards towards the light,
then shies away, turns back toward the oozing blood and ichor. I can
still visit the places the VanderMeer created in my mind in the company
of his characters. It's all icky. We're all icky. It's the kind of truth
that really sticks with you.
Now Mark Haddon's
curious incident of the dog in the night time'
isn't his first novel, either. But it's his first adult novel, so like
Vandermeer's work that puts it in a sort of netherworld of first-not-first.
But this I know for sure. Haddon's novel was hands-down, without doubt,
the most loanable, the most recommendable, the most deserving of number-one
bestsellerdom of last year. They could drop it from helicopters with
a bill attached and I bet nine out of ten people would read the book
and pay the bill, happily. And they'd probably try force it on the one
in ten who didn't want to read it. Haddon work is the kind of thing
you can't do in movies, though some enterprising soul may just go right
out and make a bang-up movie of it. But it works as a book in the ways
only books can work. It gets right to you and sears your soul with the
joy and pain of the narrator's quest. Look, ignore everything else I've
ever said, but read this book, and I think you'll agree that it's something
John Burdett's novel 'Bangkok
8' was not his first novel. But it was
the first I encountered at Bookshop Santa Cruz, and it knocked me right
out, it did. Like Haddon's novel, this book turns largely on the point
of view of the first person narrator. In this case, it is not a disease
that defines the perspective, but a religion. It reads in many ways,
like a science fiction novel, offering a point-of-view that allows clueless
Western civilization to see itself entirely from the outside. Even now,
I can return to that perspective, look at myself from Sonchai's eyes.
David Corbett's mystery novel 'Done
for a Dime' isn't a first novel
either; it's a second novel that reads like the complex achievement
of a long and award-studded career. In retrospect, it feels like the
mature work of a classic mystery writer. The thrill is that we can get
to see where Corbett, already an assured pro goes next; to see how he
grows beyond what we currently know as the seasoned professional.
Like any reader, I appreciate my share of fun reading. And lots of what
I read last year was fun, but the fun that stuck with me came in the
guide of two excellent science fiction novels; Neal Asher's 'The Line
of Polity' and Richard Morgan's 'Broken Angels'. Look, like just about
any guy, I'm kind of a dope for guns and monsters, and these guys both
brought me guns, monsters and another ingredient not often found in
the vicinity of guns and monsters -- characters I cared about. Asher's
mutant kid Apis Coolant is just too wonderful, while Morgan's Takeshi
Kovacs is too cool. Chuck Palahniuk's 'Diary' offered that sense of
fun as well, in a literary package that showcased writing skills rarely
brought to novels that are as much fun to read. Period, and that's all
As I write this essay, I'm coming better to understand what it is about
books that I like, and one of the things I'm finding out is that I like
books that offer a sense of place that the reader can go back and re-visit.
Jonathan Lethem's 'The
Fortress of Solitude' was The Great American
Novel of 2003. It had the scope, it had the characters, it had the imagination
and it had the heart. But it also created a place, Boerum Hill, a Brooklyn
neighborhood with such detail that it has become a place that I have
walked, that I can go back to visit again and again. And I do visit
it, often, in the company of boys and men not unlike myself, the characters
created by Lethem. Powerful, poignant, pertinent. It deserves a National
Book Award, but --then I've already done my award rant.
Great American Novel of 2003.
I'll go back again and again to visit Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins.
It's a numinous mystery series with characters like old friends, mysteries
that unravel and illuminate, an atmosphere I can breathe easily,
thankfully. I don't read much series mystery. But in novels like 'The
Lamp of the Wicked', Rickman's blend of mystery, character and the
supernatural is the kind of comfort that
I cannot do without. The same would be true of another series author
I just discovered this year, yet I read enough of his work to make my
choice of which was best difficult. While the rest of the world has
been reading Terry Pratchett like gangbusters, I've always managed to
resist the urge. Having started reading him, I now look back and wonder
what the hell I was thinking. Pratchett's novels definitely do not fade
with time; they get better in memory. Pratchett's latest novel, 'Monstrous
Regiment' is a beautifully written political satire, but coming as I
did, from never having read any of Pratchett's Discworld novels, I was
most captivated this year by 'Night
Watch', a poignant tale of policing
in Pratchett's remarkably complex creation. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's
'Felaheen' was another creation that blended intense imagination and
emotion more effectively than anyone has a right to demand. The density
of Grimwood's world is beyond compare in today's speculative fiction.
Behind every word, one can sense a world as real as ours, as complicated
and terrifying human, yet a world that is nothing like ours --other
than it is the result of humanity living a life unfettered by reality
as we, at least, know it. We'll have to thank Del Rey here in the USA
when the novels start appearing next year. Look for them to win awards
in either the mystery genre or the science fiction genre, or most properly,
in the plain old fiction genre, though they are nothing like plain or
And then there is the book I thought I would not like, but came to love.
Win Blevins' 'So
Wild a Dream' is about a time and a place that I had
no interest in whatsoever until I cracked his novel and started reading
about the westward expansion in the early 1820's. Blevins' novel is
the beginning of a series that is so well-crafted, so emotionally resonant,
I was reverted to my childhood, when I used to enjoy adventure stories
of a similar stripe. But Blevins' work is complex and rewarding for
this adult, enough so that I can hardly wait until his next book comes
lovely, memorable novel.
Ian R. Macelod's 'The
Light Ages' marks the start of a beautiful, detailed
series set in a Dickensian England which has been tweaked by the discovery
of a magical source of power. Prose is Macleod's magical source of power,
paired with a scientific extrapolative rigor and a connection to the
deepest well of our emotions. It makes a nice pair with Ken Macleod's
'Engine City', a space opera series capper that makes horrifically depressing
conclusions about mankind far more fun than they deserve to be. Together
they create an iron dream which will trap the hardiest readers between
bars of hopelessness and despair.
And in contrast to the serial works we know and love, there are the
authors we can count on to produce standalone novels of power, grace,
humor, wonder --it's a wide palette. Last night, I was flipping past
a Discovery channel show on whales, and when they stated that the fluke
of a whale was as individual as a human fingerprint, I flashed on Christopher
Moore's wonderful novel of the same title, 'Fluke'. Moore lavishes as
much attention to his wonderful characters as he does to a thrillingly
mind-boggling premise in 'Fluke'. This is the good-time novel you can
go back and re-read to re-laugh at the jokes. There's also a lot of
humor in Chuck Palahniuk's remarkable 'Diary', the kind of black humor
you'd expect from the author who brought you last year's 'Lullaby' and
the mordant satire 'Survivor'. Palahniuk gooses his story of supernatural
revenge with writing so stripped down, so transparent and yet so skillfully
complex that it's hard to believe the prose structure that unfolds in
your reading mind. Stewart O'Nan shows a similar level of skill in 'The
Night Country'. O'Nan also deploys a storyteller's voice to unfurl the
Halloween tale of a tragic auto accident with surprising causes and
reverberations that ripple reality. Typing these words about the book,
the sky begins to darken, and I can feel the leaves turn; and that's
what I want from a novel, something to hold on to, something to go back
For me, looking back at the books I read last year, I can see where
I was and what I was doing as I read them. While I read books with bookmarks,
books themselves become a form of life marks, icons which I can grab
on to, to bring back a memory good or bad, of what was happening when
I read them. This is at least one reason why I keep track of what books
I read and when; of course my writing for this website is clearly another.
But I can look at last year, from the goofy, post-NewYears' fun of Cory
Doctorow's 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' to the warm summer nights
of reading Jonathan Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude'. From a radiant
spring day with Graham Joyce's 'The Facts of Life' to a long Fall holiday
drive immersed in 'So Wild a Dream'. Each book another notch in the
year, another experiential overlay on life itself. Last year is gone,
but the books remain.