Well, that was fun.
The best part (kinda-sorta) of the past year was the commitment I made to read as much as possible over 2011. For years, I’ve collected books at a far faster rates than I could finish them. I tried to to whittle down the collection this year, and if it weren’t for the Borders bankruptcy and subsequent bloodletting, I probably would have succeeded- instead, I came home with even more paper. But as it stands, 2011 is my most readingest year on record. I’ve read some good ones and some bad ones, but all in all, I need to make sure I carry this forward. So! Here’s what I read, in order:
Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk. Super-entertaining hard sci-fi spanning hundreds of years until the last 10% or so. The dry-heave of an ending somehow didn’t ruin the experience for me.
Ecotopia by Ernest Callender. An interesting alternate history that serves as a possible blueprint to a post-oil society. It got a little slow in parts, a little dated, and maybe a little too earnest, but it was an interesting bit of speculation.
Haiti Noir edited by Edwidge Danticat. I’m a big fan of the Akashic Noir series, and the Haiti entry was excellent. This country embodies noir like few others, and with the history of political oppression, crime, colonialism, voodoo, drugs, and the recent earthquake coloring stories, it was a riveting look into a world we’ll likely never see.
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. I can’t say enough good things about this book, David Mitchell, and his entire body of work. I’ve never read anything that has so many diverse and entirely riveting and believable voices as what Mitchell does, and he does it here with nine different narrators. The way they all link up, and how he draws the circle to a close with an incredible twist, made my jaw drop. Highest recommendation.
Mountain Justice by Tricia Shapiro. This is an insider’s look at the newest generation of organized grassroots resistance to mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. I’ve always known it was bad, but Shapiro takes us inside the communities that are facing death from this mode of mining and makes it real. It gets pretty in-depth into the activist milieu, so that may bore you, but I ate this book up.
Mythmakers and Lawbreakers by Margaret Killjoy. A series of interview with fiction authors who have been influenced to some degree by the philosophy of anarchism. Some real heavy hitters are here, like Ursula LeGuin and Alan Moore, but people I was not familiar with like Lewis Shiner who also provided some brilliant bits. Michael Moorcock in particular really gave me some thoughts to ponder.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. I read Beukes’ first book, Moxyland, and was greatly entertained by her fresh and modern voice. Cyberpunk for the 21st century, with a South African twist. This book was even better, a modern tale of noir and magic that is inextricable from its South African roots. Truly a delight to read something so out-there.
The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. I find few writers as perceptive, honest, and revealing as Cactus Ed. That is probably what made this novel so heartbreaking. I often daydream of the kind of free life lived by Jack Burns, but Ed slams the door on that kind of life with finality, just as it was closed for our real lives as well. But that doesn’t make it any less of a work of art.
Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman by Walter Miller. Since this is a sequel (or sorts) to A Canticle for Leibowitz I don’t know what I can say about this without tons of context. But I will say in a world of lazy post-apocalyptic stories, this was a masterpiece that focused on the REAL topic- human nature, and whether we really can escape a violent end. ‘Canticle’ took place two hundred, five hundred, and a thousand years after our world is destroyed in nuclear fire; this tale alone is longer than the first book, and set entirely in the five-hundred-years-after time period. It is crackling with nervous energy and political intrigue. Loved it. Read the first, at least.
Mesopotamia by Arthur Nersesian. I like a good mystery as much as the next person, and even more so when it’s in an unexpected place, i.e. rural Tennessee. Extra points for a look at the odder side of life, like, say, Elvis impersonation. This was exactly what I needed after the herculean effort and apocalyptic scope of Saint Leibowitz.
Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat. I usually think that steampunk is wack, just another reason to use archaic words and machines in a new context, but this book was much more than the aesthetic it borrows from. It’s an entirely riveting and modern world, while still remaining it’s olden character. I was very engrossed in this one, and look forward for more from Valtat.
How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove. An entertaining romp through an alternate history wherein the Confederate States won the Civil War, and the nations butt heads again in 1881. It strives for reality and detail, and often delivers, but often at the expense of pacing and flow. Whatever. I can geek out on the details. And, it sets the stage for…
American Front by Harry Turtledove. The next volume in the series that started with How Few Remain. The First World War has broken out in North America and my God does it give some horrible images. Seeing trenches, poison gas, and slaughter on this continent is indeed scary. Has the same problems with pacing and flow, but I can get through it.
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert. The second volume in the Dune series. It draws in from the universal and religious aspect of the first into one of political intrigue, and does so masterfully. Definitely read Dune, it’s kind of essential.
Zulu by Caryl Férey. Now this is a hard-boiled mystery that pulls no punches. Can’t remember the last time I gasped at a book, but I sure did here. That poor bastard… anyhow, this was pretty great, and a really incisive look at South Africa.
The Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder. I probably got into this book more than I should, because I love Kalder’s efforts to speak for antitourism- namely, seeking the places that no one else seeks, like the remote, ruined and obscure ex-Soviet republics, to see what they have to offer. And based on his travels, he got something out of it. I did too.
DC Noir edited by George Pelecanos. Another entry in Akashic Noir that gave me a ton of enjoyment, perhaps because I know these places they speak of. A lot of the stories are top-notch, some are not, but it’s definitely a great read in all.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Zombies are overdone, we all know it- but Whitehead told a story of a world after the zombies that is possibly even more terrifying. He examines what really would survive, in the world and in us, and I think that sometimes could be worse. And then the shit got real and oh my God all that blood…
Supergods by Grant Morrison. I’m pretty into comic books, and I appreciate Morrison’s work in explaining where comic heroes came from and how they reflect and influence the world around us. They really are integral to the fabric of our society and should be treated as such.
Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi. Awesome collection of short stories by a new master. I have nothing to say but you need to check this out. He runs all the gamut of sci fi, and some of his stories are too believable to not be terrifying.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Pump Six confirmed to me that I needed to check this one out. Bacigalupi’s world building is top-notch, and his biopunk story is creepy and deep. Great characters and a fast pace give this one a movie feel.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. Veselka’s narrator has such a remarkable and refreshing voice that I could not help but eat it up. Her world-building shows a reality just slightly removed from ours, and terrifying in its own believable way. It was engrossing, rewarding, and unique- so, I’m already looking forward to her next work.
The Discontents by James Wallace Birch. A debut work by a somewhat-mysterious author, this one definitely struck close to home as it’s set in the murky activist underground in Washington, DC. It has a ton of heart and passion, and it’s a good book to close out the year.
If I had to pick my top three, I’d have to go with Ghostwritten, Zazen, and The Brave Cowboy. All moved me in very different directions, but move me they did. So there it is. A year of reading. There’s no way I’ll get as many books done this year, as I’m devoting my time to some pretty big ones- Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis, and Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. It’s going to be a mind-bending year, I think. Here we go!