The first half of the year has nearly come and gone, and in that span I’ve finished ninety-four books, not counting re-reads. In the past two years of this sort of thing, I’ve reviewed the top five fiction and top five non-fiction books for each six-month period, devoting about 1,000 words to each fiction title and about two thirds of that to nonfiction. This year, however, I wanted to cover a broader swathe of territory. And so, for the fiction section of this half-a-year-in-review, I’ve devoted substantial reviews to nine titles and capsule reviews to twenty-three more. The remaining twenty-four fictional titles that I’ve read this year were either things I didn’t have a lot to say about in spite of their quality, or too mediocre to fall into either the “best” or “worst” pile.
Non-fiction review coming within a few days!
Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, Caitlín R. Kiernan
The divine is always abominable.
I would list the standouts of this collection, but there really aren’t any—the possible exception being “The Steam Dancer”, which may be the only optimistic short story Kiernan has ever written. That’s not to say there aren’t stories I hold as favorites—”The Ammonite Violin” and “Tidal Forces”, both of which I had previously read in Jonathan Strahan’s annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, are probably the two I hold the most affection for. Rather it’s to say that there’s such a consistency here, both in quality and in tone, that the tales for the most part blur together into one long fever dream, a hallucinatory experience that leaves the reader unsettled and unsure.
The terror of the beautiful is the best theme I can think of to tie Kiernan’s body of work together. She is a master of juxtaposition, of taking acts that are degrading and perverse and brutal and rendering them in such artful language (she is without question the foremost prose stylist in her field) that the reader is compelled to linger over the prose even as she recoils from what it signifies. Many of the collection’s stories were first published in Sirenia Digest, Kiernan’s journal of erotic fiction, and that underlying concern with transgressive sexuality—its mingled attraction and repulsion, blessing and taboo—is ever-present. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Kiernan’s work is the way she manages to take nightmarish acts (whether that nightmarishness is due to violence or sheer alien-ness) and imbue them with a terrible attraction for the reader. The old adage about a car wreck is apt.
The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith
I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me… I will comb you like music caught in the heads of all the trees in the forest…
The fact that this book was published in the 1950s is staggering to me. It’s a beautifully subtle, nuanced take on the love that dare not speak its name—some readers complain that it leaves them cold, but the characters’ lack of fiery passion for much of the text is a very deliberate choice. For gay couples in this period, outward love was all but impossible to express. Everything became a code, signifiers carefully extended and received—a pair of gloves left on a counter, the briefest flash of hands clutched together, the most transient of shared gazes across a room.
And when passion does come, it is so magnificent a release that it feels transcendent. For a novel that was marketed as pulp romance at the time of its publication to carry such genuine, achingly beautiful feeling is among the rarest of gifts. I went into The Price of Salt expecting to respect it rather than enjoy it, as was the case with Annie on My Mind, another pillar of LGBT literature, last year. Instead, I found myself smiling and joyful for much of it, heartsick for other portions. Were The Price of Salt published today, it would still be an absolutely wonderful novel. Viewing it in its historical context, it’s something of a miracle.
The Red Tree, Caitlín R. Kiernan
I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me.
A fusion of Mulholland Drive and The Blair Witch Project, The Yellow Wall-Paper and House of Leaves. Alien geometries, the sheer grinding mundane terror of isolation. The prison of your house mirrors the prison of your head. “I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it.” How much of us dies when our love dies? Is part of our brain burnt out, a cigarette mark of pink-flecked charcoal meat never again to fire its neurons? Unreliable narrator? Reliable? What the fuck kind of distinction is that, anyway? The story tells itself, and the reader has no choice but to rely upon the teller just as the teller has no choice but to rely upon her own perceptions no matter how fucked they are. You desperately want companionship but you desperately need to be left the hell alone whenever she shows up, she’s like a buzzbuzzbuzzing in your head and won’t just let it be fucking quiet. Not the quiet of isolation, the intense humming of silence that drills into your head, just eyes closed ears closed peace. There’s peace in the basement, no noises there, but you mustn’t go down because it’s bigger on the inside and the damp is everywhere, and what if she were to follow you at any rate? Claustrophobia or agoraphobia, take your pick, the tight black decomposition or the wide carnivorous sky. Your head is stopped up, there’s a vice squeezing on it, and if only you could just get out the goddamn words, but the only worlds your words can shape are your own and its mirrors. You can’t get out. You can’t get out. Nothing is coming and you can’t get out.
(Please excuse the awful cover art. Penguin deserves to be shot.)
The Odyssey, Homer (translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles)
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …/driven time and again off course,once he had plundered/the hallowed heights of Troy . . .
It would be pointless and hopelessly hubris-full for me to even attempt a four-paragraph review of the Odyssey as if it were some recent bestseller, so I won’t bother.
Instead I just want to note the quality that most stood out to me upon my much-too-belated reading of the grand old thing: how cinematic it feels. The opening “We’re getting the band back together” thrill, the constant sense of momentum, the jumps in time, the changes of perspective, the grand imagery—they carry with them the lofty quality of the Iliad, but there’s a constant driving excitement present even in the bare words on the page that simply isn’t present in most of the former epic. The Iliad struggles under the weight of its historical background, so concerned with the Grim Historical Pillar that it depicts that, while there’s plenty of fun and emotion to be had, they’re buried in many places under a brick wall of solemnity.
The Odyssey, by contrast, is an adventure the whole way through without sacrificing emotional resonance or divine grandeur. It helps that (as Julian Jaynes would attribute to the breakdown of the bicameral mind’s divine hallucinations) people are people; in the Iliad it was the gods who had all the fun with things like deception and deliberation, but its sequel is chock-full of them on everyone’s behalf. It was almost inevitable that it would be made into a Coen Brothers film, really. If, as God help us is probably unavoidable, a big-screen Odyssey happens sometime in the next decade, they’d do well to remember that, as staggering an achievement as it is, it’s damn fun too.
(A postscript: between reading both this and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths this year, Athena has become my favorite character of the ancient world. If ever I become a neopagan of some kind she’s my go-to deity.)
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
As with the book above, there isn’t much I can say about Catch-22 that hasn’t already been said. Suffice to say that few books have ever moved me so much or in so many different ways—moved me to laughter, to frustration, to horrified sadness, to absurd joy. Heller’s novel is simultaneously one of the most cynical and one of the most life-affirming texts I’ve ever read.
I can see why my first attempt at it, at the age of thirteen, didn’t succeed. It’s a novel that’s largely built around the impotent wrath it induces within the reader, and said wrath is dependent upon the grind of absurdity that goes on. And on. And on, constantly running the razor’s edge between effectiveness and tedium (see also: American Psycho). It’s too much for most pre-adolescent minds to handle, my own certainly included. The slog that is the first 400 pages makes the final few mean so much more, though. It’s the sort of release you feel as a physical sensation in your chest.
I’m never, ever reading the sequel. Even if it had gotten a mostly positive reception as opposed to the drubbing it inspired, there are some things you just don’t touch.
Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.
I hate Charles Dickens, but I’m increasingly coming to love Dickensian fiction. My antipathy for the former is built upon three defects: his incessant moralizing, his violently purple prose, and worst of all his inability to construct a human character. Writing in nothing but caricatures is all well and good for a novella like A Christmas Carol, but stretch it out to the 900 pages of Bleak House and my patience runs tissue-thin. The genre itself, however, holds tremendous promise if executed properly. Take a cast full of eccentrics—the line between eccentrics and caricatures is thin, but it exists—give them a complex bit of business, and pile it with well-earned melodramatic twists and reversals, and it’s hard to picture a more entertaining one, in fact. Pulp Fiction is Dickensian fiction, in a sense. Harry Potter certainly is, when extrapolated to an entire series.
Throw into this mix a touch of lesbian romance? Well, that’s just irresistible.
And rest assured, it’s not nearly as smutty as the above line combined with the no-less-than-quadruple-entendre of a title suggests. This may be a Victorian pulp crime novel whose title is in part a masturbation pun, but it’s classy, by God. A Booker nominee, no less. Like Dickens, it is equal parts romp and tragedy; its central caper puts those of The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven to shame, but Waters’ display of the horrors of being a woman in the 19th century—vivid without falling into didacticism—is utterly skin-crawling. It’s one of the most successful examples of a fusion of highbrow social commentary and lowbrow adventure that I’ve read, as evidenced by its perennial popularity among both critics and the sort of people who contribute their books to Goodwill. Mr. Dickens would be proud.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
Once, somebody asked Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a certain piece of music he had just played on the piano. What Robert Schumann did was sit back down at the piano and play the piece of music again.
In the beginning, sometimes I left reviews on the internet.
Well, what I mean by that is not that I placed reviews atop the internet, but that I uploaded representations of reviews onto a representation of a piece of paper.
My language is frequently imprecise like that, I have found.
The apocalypse is not the concern in Markson’s novel. Rather, it is mere window-dressing for an emotional and philosophical experience of uncanny power. I am, of course, speaking in metaphor.
When I was mad—for I do know, if I know anything, that I was once quite mad—I read this book from cover to cover, tearing out each page when I had finished its reverse side and depositing it in the fire.
Van Gogh painted a fire once. Or, I should say, he painted a representation of a pile of broken glass, which was in itself a representation of a fire.
That is, I think I remember that Van Gogh painted something like that.
I thought I saw someone move, just now, but it was merely a flicker of light against one of the images on my screen. There is, of course, no one left to move.
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.
(This is not a novel to be read without at least some background with literature, especially classic literature. If you have the context, however, the unnamed last woman on earth’s rambling mantra is often funny, occasionally devastating, and always unsettling. The overwhelming sense of desolation Markson generates is achieved in tandem with, not in spite of, the narrator’s frequent pauses for analyses of Greek drama and philosophical investigations in the vein of the novel’s namesake—these tangents at once reveal the desperation of the narrator’s plight and attempt to smother it. A haunting experience, to be devoured all at once if possible.)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.
It would be easy for A Canticle for Leibowitz to slide into a mere, if very good, polemic were it in the hands of a lesser author. The premise—an apocalyptically altered Catholic church attempts to preserve civilization throughout the centuries of rebuilding—is ripe for partisanship, with this hypothetical lesser novel coming down firmly either on the side of self-righteous secularism or pandering, patronizing religious smugness. What makes Canticle a masterpiece is the way Miller weaves a tapestry of ambiguities throughout its text, considering to the fullest extent the mixed benefits and hazards of turning over the keys to human society to a sacred institution.
The three sub-novels that form the book are largely unconnected in terms of plot and character, but tonally are of a piece—equal parts gently humorous and profoundly sad, an uneasy mixture to match the book’s conflicting attitudes toward religion. Ultimately, Canticle can be viewed either as a bleak cautionary tale or a triumphant assertion of the human spirit in face of disaster; neither option is incorrect, just as Christ’s death and resurrection is simultaneously the greatest tragedy and the profoundest comedy ever put to paper. Like the best religious fiction, and for that matter the best religious texts themselves, its lack of answers is unsettling but all the more compelling for it.
Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente
A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.
This novel is a machine designed to push all of my buttons. A decopunk space opera centered around filmmaking, featuring a neo-noir detective as one of its protagonists and an enigmatic female auteur as its MacGuffin?
It’s science fiction, if decidedly soft on the science, but the crystalline, lilting magic of Valente’s fantasy writing remains on display. She, along with Caitlín R. Kiernan, is the best prose stylist working in the SF/F field today, her sentences rich and laden with metaphoric imagery without ever becoming overly abstract. A unique joy in Radiance, however, is how she mixes this authorial voice with a kaleidoscope of homage. The neo-noir narrative-within-a-narrative drips Chandler and Hammett without ever losing Valente’s gift for language; certain monologues joyfully ape Ray Bradbury’s mix of the comic and the ecstatic from his Death Is a Lonely Business trilogy, another fantastical romp through the land of the silver screen. References to ’30s and ’40s marketing abound, intertwining seamlessly with the language of the novel’s imagined melding of art deco and a future that includes space whales.
Had the Rabid Puppies and their wretched ilk not commandeered the Hugo Awards for the second year in a row, I’m confident that Radiance would have picked up a nomination for Best Novel. It most certainly deserved one. It’s a symbol of what’s best about speculative fiction—a simultaneous celebration of the past and yearning for the beautiful future, a confidence that we can make a better world without the smugness that says it will be easy. It’s a dazzling display by an author at the height of her powers.
The Music of Chance, Paul Auster
A fusion of Kafka and Beckett—two men, entrapped by a game of cards gone sour, are forced to slave for a massive wall in the middle of a field—that should fall apart due to Auster’s sheer audacity in aping the same, but instead becomes a remarkable creation of its own. No author better captures the terrifying freedom of solitude and dire circumstances.
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
The sheer disgust present here is dizzying. The unfortunate movie tie-in cover art that my copy bears (Little Free Library beggars can’t be choosers) inadvertently suggested weepy, Oscar-bait type fare, and even having read The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory I wasn’t prepared for the brutal cynicism that pervades the text. Not to be read in the midst of a divorce.
Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts
The first story in this collection takes John Carpenter’s The Thing and somehow manages to make it even more horrifying than it already was. This is basically par for the course for the rest of what’s offered. And the truly scary thing is that, as Watts points out in his Afterword, most of these stories are comparatively optimistic versions of posthumanist science fiction.
A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (previously published as Selected Stories), Alice Munro
Maybe it’s something in the water—between Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, Canadian authors seem to have a gift for crystalline, understated prose. None of the stories here is a firecracker of brilliance; rather, they sneak up on you before you’ve realized what’s going on. Quiet, melancholic, gorgeous.
Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente
Oh, Cath. You had me at Stalinist house elves. (And she somehow manages to balance that tone with what is otherwise a fusion of Russian folktales with the aesthetic of Hannibal. This woman must be stopped.)
The Ammonite Violin & Others, Caitlín R. Kiernan
Each tale within a perfect, glistening ebony jewel, a fossil dug from deep within the earth that has come alive again. And they’re all hungry.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
“This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.”
Yep. Yep. The dark, fantastical alternative to Fingersmith is just as impressive and infinitely more likely to make you want to throw it at the wall. (And it’s only the first in a series. Hoo boy.)
The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two
The best children’s series of the decade continues to inspire dread (“Okay, this one can’t possibly be as good as the last two” and awe (“Holy shit, that was as good as the last two!”) in equal measure. I am now biting my nails and hoping that the dismount is not blown with The Boy Who Lost Fairyland and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, but even if it is we have in September one of the best female protagonists ever written (or just protagonists period, for that matter).
Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
Were the rest of the novel to be a complete clunker, the image of a sentient wave covering a planet would be enough to label it a classic. (And, manky translation from Polish to French to English notwithstanding, the rest of the novel is in fact mostly excellent.)
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov
As good as Lolita? Nothing is, you fool. But it’s most definitely the best overlong SF/F epic about incest ever penned—GRRM eat your heart out. More than anyone else, Nabokov manages to walk a tightrope between pretension and sheer fun—as you’re reading the novel you’re baffled that he’s getting away with it, and even more baffled that you’re enjoying yourself immensely.
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
The tale of a 19th-century murderess who has perhaps been falsely accused would seem to be a perfect choice for Atwood. This could actually be a weakness rather than a strength, however—it feels at times like she’s resting on her laurels, especially when compared to the immediate followup The Blind Assassin. Nevertheless, she’s incapable of writing anything bad, her clean, clear prose never anything less than a pleasure.
The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente
A 1,001 Nights for the modern age, tales within tales within tales in swirling patterns and currents. Occasionally this dizzying recursion can get out of Valente’s control, but the book is still nothing less than a marvel, especially for an author who was at the time only twenty-eight years old—assured, confident, and full of utterly gorgeous imagery and worldbuilding.
In the Country of Lost Things, Paul Auster
A departure for Auster in terms of its female protagonist, this postmodern dystopia is too slight to be counted among his best work but taken on its own is a riveting little novel. It also forms an intriguing bridge between the cool, cerebral New York Trilogy and the ecstatic, personal Moon Palace, injecting the humanity of the latter into the urban hellscape of the former.
Elvissey, Jack Womack
What could have been an off-the-wall romp—time travelers from the future must abduct Elvis from the 1950s and bring him to an awaiting religious cult who worship him as a Messiah—is instead a bleak, terribly sad work with touches of the absurdly comic mixed in. The futurespeak exhibited here and in other Womack novels such as Random Acts of Senseless Violence is on a par with A Clockwork Orange‘s for its subtlety and thoughtfulness.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Willis desperately needs an editor—the book could easily be 200 pages shorter—but as opposed to the above time-travel experiment, this novel is a delightfully off-the-wall romp full of madcap energy. It’s also extraordinarily well-plotted, and manages to be endearing in spite of its preponderance of Victorian amateur spiritualists, who are the literal worst.
The Sandman: Overture, Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III
Writing a prequel to a universe he’s mostly left the door shut on since its mid-90’s completion was probably a mistake on Gaiman’s part—the mystery of an untold story is almost always better than an explanation. That said, it gave J. H. Williams an excuse to create the most beautiful comics art I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Every single page is this good.
BONUS ROUND: WORST OF THE SEASON
Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff
This one breaks my heart because it’s one of the best horror ideas in recent memory—Lovecraft’s monsters haunt the racist hell of the Jim Crow South. How do you possibly screw that up?
By giving it to an author who a.) isn’t black, b.) has never written a horror novel before, and c.) isn’t a good enough stylist to support his own brilliant idea.
The Postman, David Brin
“The Postman” was one of the best pieces of short fiction I read last year. It’d be a shame to ruin it by taking what’s already a perfect story arc and adding on 300 pages of mediocre SF that takes a hard left turn into stupid and ends with one of the worse deus ex machinas I’ve had the misfortune of reading.
Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson
One of the most impressive things about Wilson’s Spin, among the best SF novels of the last two decades, was the way it had an insanely good premise and then paid that premise off in a way that wasn’t anticlimactic. Which is why it’s baffling that here, the same author could write such a dismal second half to a first half I was genuinely digging.
The Books of Blood, Clive Barker
There are snatches of brilliance amid the mediocrity—”In the Hills, in the Cities” is one of the more inventive horror concepts I can remember—but on the whole this collection represents the absolute worst of the 80’s horror boom. Namely: gore in place of fear, prose that never rises above serviceable, and the occasional sophomoric attempt at philosophizing that is utterly wince-inducing.
Finders Keepers, Stephen King
Whoever in the marketing department thought it would be a good idea to compare Finders Keepers to Misery deserves digestion by Sarlacc. This turgid, by-the-numbers, airplane-thriller-bad novel is just about as far away from the perfection of Misery as you can get. With Mr. Mercedes King was at least having fun, but here he seems as bored with his novel as the reader is.
Absolute All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison
I just don’t like or understand superheroes. In fact, at this point it’s become an outright antipathy.
No, that word is too kind. I hate them.
Hate, hate, hate.
We’re talking “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” hatred here.
The Dark Knight is still a great movie, though.
Invisible, Paul Auster
What a piece of junk.
It would be a piece of junk coming from anyone, but coming from Auster it’s just unforgivable. It’s like a newspaper caricature of him met a newspaper caricature of Philip Roth and they made a love child out of the worst parts of themselves.