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.
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. MercedesThe 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.