Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Best Reads of 2014

2014 was a rough year. Twice, I found myself so sick for prolonged stretches of time that I wasn't cognitively capable of reading at all. That's why it was a surprise to look over my Goodreads list and remember that I've actually read a plethora of incredible prose this year. While I may have gotten down on film and videogames, books have remained something special. This might even be my favorite line-up since we started the #bestreads tradition.

So here are my twelve darlings. I couldn't cut it any further.

Jo Walton's My Real Children
It was with this book that Walton cemented herself as one of my favorite living authors. She seems the modern master of the story that doesn't pitch well. Consider: a senile woman in retirement home limbo, with memories of two distinct lives, uncertain of which she actually lived. The novel follows the divergent lives, splitting at whether she accepted a spur-of-the-moment marriage proposal. It could be trite, and for a few chapters seems to have an obvious "right" answer. Then life catches up to both of her selves, and life is too murky to have something as simple as a right choice, as she tries to balance a career and children, or finds opportunities she never would have had. It was a book I read in two-chapter chunks, because I needed my update from both lives. It's a yearning portrait of two possible people, that will ruthlessly skip through time, going on about one moment for paragraphs, and then a sentence later, an entire week has passed. You want more time for both of her, and you're baffled that both lives could end in the same place.

Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw
Downton Abbey, if everybody was a dragon. For the first time, one author has two standalone books on my list, though I think you'll agree this is nothing like My Real Children. A confession: I can't stand Regency and Victorian period pieces. Actual novels from those times? Sure, Middlemarch is an untouchable achievement. But I don't like the fashion, the politics, Steampunk tech, and neither the nostalgia for certain bits nor the fish-in-a-barrel critiques of its central unfairness. But somehow if you make everyone a dragon, where the sexual politics are biologically reinforced by physical size, and inheritances are had in the form of dragon flesh devoured to enlarge yourself, it percolates. Tooth and Claw is a unique juggling act, such that you're never sure if the next plot twist will revolve around Regency politics or insane dragon lore. Whenever I might have gotten tired of one element, down came the next ball, as the dragon siblings took each other to court over who should have eaten their father. Seldom do mash-up worlds feel so anthropologically interesting.

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes
The retired detective Bill Hodges sits alone in his apartment with today's mail and his gun. With no friends, no family, and his career over, he's prepared to kill himself until he notices a peculiar letter. It's from the only killer who ever got away from him, congratulating him on a mostly successful career. Hodges goes from suicidal to professional in seconds, profiling the letter, reading intent, origin of materials, any clue he can, because it's the only thing that can light up his brain. The pursuit of the killer, that "Mr. Mercedes," brings Hodges into new lives and out of a crippling depression, while at the same time, giving us the parallel narrative of the pathetic mother's boy who once got away with murder. The parallels in the lives of detective and criminal are fascinating, but the book has one other intense quality: it's got both a classic King hook, while also having one of his final acts and endings. For King's first detective novel, the format seems to have helped work out kinks that people traditionally hold against his craft. Now if I could only talk him out of fridging people.

Ted Chiang's The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling
My new gold standard for novelettes is about a future when human memories are digitized. There's no more misremembering for anyone who opts in, though it's written from the perspective of a father who's opted out and is trying to compose an essay on how this technology is damaging society. You think this is a great gimmick until the second scene, which introduces our alternating narrative of an indigenous tribe with an incomplete oral history who are introduced to another disruptive technology: pen and paper. From thereon, every new scene in both the future and past introduces some wrinkle on the way people remember things and attempt to share stories, helping us unravel what happened to the tribe, and how that writer pushed away the daughter whose love of memory tech he abhors. This is the kind of masterpiece that makes Science Fiction the genre of ideas, and Subterranean Press has put it up for free righthere.

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns
The Pulitzer-winning record of the great migration of African Americans out of the South after the U.S. Civil War. Afterward, Grimdark Fantasy was laughable to me, because you could never make something up as horrible as the black man falsely accused of attacking a white woman he'd probably never met, dragged from his jail cell the night he was meant to be released, and forced to eat his own fingers in a swamp. That's one page of this book, which reveals not only the horrors of Georgia and Rosewood, but the perils of travel along the road, and the systemic abuses black people faced when they reached the "enlightened" northern cities of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Too much of it is ugliness I'd never heard of. It was a necessary kick in the historical ass, made more uncomfortable by reading during the Ferguson protests.

Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 (Volumes 1-8)
Takahashi has mostly influenced me through anime adaptations of her manga, particularly Urusei Yatsura and Inu Yasha. This year, I read Ranma 1/2 for the first time and fell in love. There is no other Fantasy I've ever read that puts so much agency in the hands of its characters. The Fantasies are what catch most people, as Ranma turning into a girl whenever cold water is thrown on him is a heck of a gimmick that lets Takahashi headbutt many Japanese cultural norms. But as a comedy parodying Wuxia fiction (it's really a sitcom), what's fascinating is how much the characters opt into. We know who's in love with who, and relish the comedy of errors that spins from there, as the kids attempt to woo and sabotage each other. It's several books in, as two are dashing along rooftops in an attempt to win a food delivery contest that neither of them has interest in (you read that correctly), and they joke about why they're bothering with it, that suddenly all other Fantasy feels too serious for its own good. Overwhelmingly Ranma 1/2's stories are about someone deciding to cause a problem, and members of the cast getting invested enough to intervene (or intervene to stop the intervention). Which sometimes means ritual combat in the form of ballet.

Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys (Volumes 1-8)
After finishing Urasawa's Monster, it was almost offensive to find he'd written another series that was almost as good. It's not fair for an author to compose two bafflingly intricate and brilliant series of such length, and worse, Urasawa may have written several more. 20th Century Boys starts as the story of Kenji, a convenience store clerk who gets a cryptic letter from a childhood friend asking if he remembers their old games. Before Kenji can respond, the friend commits suicide. That's why their old fantasies of defending the world from evil are on Kenji's mind when terrorist attacks begin hitting around the city, in exactly the pattern they'd once laid out. Rapidly, 20th Century Boys expands to be about the many lives those childhood friends touched, and who involved could possibly be committing these crimes. Like Monster, it's an increasingly twisted rabbit hole of fiction that's easy to lose yourself in

John Ajvide Lindqvist's Handling the Undead
Another follow-up read, following Let the Right One In, which is my favorite vampire story ever written. Here, Lindqvist deconstructs the zombie. It's not an unstoppable infection that overturns the world, but rather a conundrum that robs the finality from death and leaves relatives of the affected unable to move on. It's a world where kids play Resident Evil to escape the terrors their parents are going through. It's an affliction that science can't explain, and that leaves the religious confused about what they're supposed to do. The result takes us to intense parallels of handling family with mental disorders, or who are near the end of their lives, but still an unknowable span of time away. While I still don't know what to make of the ending, I've gone and bought his next book.

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita
An unusual satire, even for one written in Stalinist Russia. The contemporary chapters seem to follow Satan on holiday and mock Soviet secularism. Then there are several parts set around the crucifixion of Christ, which depict him as a coward who denies his own teachings to avoid punishment. Can a book be both anti-secular and anti-religious? Before you can reconcile the two threads, they're woven together along a story of lost lovers and madness, and the close is somewhere between psychedelic and The Book of Revelations. I almost had more fun being confounded by Bulgakov's novel than I did putting the whole thing together. It should be required reading for anyone interested in satire.

David Wong's John Dies at the End
When my medication stopped working this Spring and I lapsed into a profound depression, this was the only book that could get me to laugh. It's such a collision of the casual and the uncanny, with its alien juices that corrode the walls of your consciousness, which the locals just call "soy sauce." It's the monster that ruptures with the sound of a bag of garbage dropped off an apartment building. It's cheeky and earthy in exactly the ways I want to see the outlandish creep into the empty holes in our world. Some reviewers said it did for Horror what Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did for Science Fiction. I go back and forth between that, and it simply being my favorite Urban Fantasy. All of this, from a book the title of which threatened my life.

Koushun Takami's Battle Royale
Let's forego arguments over whether Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale and go straight to what matters. Whenever Kazuo Kiriyama or Mitsuko Souma showed up, I got nervous like when the fin broke the water in Jaws. In a novel with many great vignettes, these two kids who really would "play the game" and orchestrate the deaths of their classmates was rigorously unnerving. They're not the main characters, but the most efficient killers, Kiriyama happy to trap and hunt, where Souma socially tricks and outwits. They're two different kinds of ruination, and seeing Souma tear apart friendships is every bit as nerve wracking as knowing Kiriyama is hiding a gun. It's a novel of protests against violence, and kids trying to find ways to subvert or stop the game, but it's the predators that have stuck with me the longest. I would've loved this at 14, but reading it at any age is welcome.

Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride
The book I'm mostly likely to re-read of anything, and my first e-book impulse gift. hen Choo's publisher put the e-book on $2, I started sending it to anyone I thought would enjoy it. I even signed up for a Barnes & Noble account just to gift it to a friend who only had a Nook. Set in Malaya after the collapse of Chinese colonization and at the dawn of British colonization, Choo offers masterful cultural depth even before the fantastical elements rise. You see, Li Lan's family is broke, culturally isolated because of their Chinese heritage, when she's given an offer: marry the dead son of a wealthy family so he can rest. It's a good, and almost touching deal, until he starts appearing in her dreams, excited for when they'll be together. What that entails will suck Li Lan into a Chinese afterlife and entangle her with the Judges of Hell itself, one of whom is on the take. On top of how illuminating I found the ride, this also wound up being the first book that a dear friend of mine finished in 2014, and rekindled her love of reading. That's worth any price tag.

18 comments:

  1. I'm actually supposed to be reading the Ghost Bride right now.

    There are so many books I've never heard of on your list. I should read the Warmth of Other Suns, might give me a few ideas for the WIP. And that dragon book looks so good. But I am a sucker for dragons.

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    1. I don't know if there's another dragon book out there like Tooth and Claw. I definitely recommend giving it a shot for the sheer Fantasy of it.

      Warmth of Other Suns, on the other hand, is an incredible History. What WIP would it be assisting?

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    2. the current one, the one where I am stuck in the middle. It's an urban fantasy, but it might help me flesh out the setting.

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  2. Books are special. And have frequently been a saviour for me.
    Love your list, and have Handling the Undead on my bedside table because of your recommendation.
    I hope that 2015 is a much, much better year for you healthwise.

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    1. Ha! You'll have to tell me what you think of Handling the Undead. I'm sorely tempted to jump to his Harbor soon.

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  3. I was just thinking yesterday that it would soon be time for you to post your favourites for the year! Like Sonia, I haven't heard of many of them. It's always intriguing to see what other people have enjoyed.

    I too hope that you have a healthy and pleasant 2015.

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  4. Skip Ghost Bride and go for Lisa See's Peony In Love.....similar concept, but See is a better writer, in my opinion!

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    1. Well, I can't skip Ghost Bride as I've already read it, and it wound up one of my favorite books of the year. If See managed to top it, I'll be very impressed. Happy to check out her novel.

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    2. I think you will like it, and her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is even better. :)

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  5. I'd seen the movie, but not read Battle Royal.
    Downtown Abbey as dragons. Now that's funny!

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    1. I remember enjoying the film adaptation of Battle Royale. I should revisit it soon. I recall it giving Kiriyama even more of a cold approach.

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  6. Love the list, John, thank you! I've only read Bulgakov, so that means 11 more books/manga to add on my wishlist. No kidding, Battle Royale and Mr. King are not to be missed.

    And I really need to get those Jo Walton books! My Real Children has been on my list ever since you first blogged about it and brough my attention - I've even spoken about it to friends.

    Also really glad I'm seeing The Master and Margarita here as it's a very favorite book - I read it while playing Vampire The Masquarade.

    The Ghost Bride sparks an interest; I think I'll be looking into it asap. From your words I take it there's new life that comes with it, and I've never really visited China in the literary way before so...

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    1. Haha, how did Bulgakov go with playing Vampire the Masquerade? I could imagine some of the Soviet-era parts inspiring good role playing antics.

      I can't recommend Walton enough. She seems to target the hardest pitches and turns them into brilliant literature. I'm too excited over The Just City's release next month.

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    2. I was fighting a boss and crouching behind a table recharging my HP and devouring chapters from Bulgakov in the meantime.

      A new book by Walton? Oh wow I need to hurry and get any of the previous two.

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  7. Very interesting list. I just started to read Ghost Bride and Mr. Mercedes is next on the list. I adore King's writing style but not always like the contents.

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  8. Okay, John Dies at the End is going back on my To Read list... I was turned off by some of Wong's articles for Cracked, but now I'm flipped around again.

    Great list!

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    1. I'm not much of a Cracked fan, and held off on giving this a shot because of Wong's work there. If anything, the Cracked writing just sharpened his prose style and helped him hit frequent humor beats. It really is a heck of a Horror Comedy - it's the humor that Horror deserves.

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  9. Happy New Year, John. Thanks for sharing your favorite reads. I was actually entertaining a story idea the other day that is about two different lives that could've been lived by the same person, and reading your excerpt about My Real Children made me think about that.

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