Thursday, January 08, 2009

Rob's 2008 Reading Year in Review

Since 2008 has been finished for over a week, now's about time to post my year in review. Here's a few other year in review posts from my blogroll:

Aidan/A Dribble of Ink
Andrew Wheeler/Antimuck Musings
Pat (The Hotties)/Fantasy Hotlist
Larry/OFBlog (Novels, Anthologies, Debuts, YA) {just when I think I read a lot, I'm put to shame by Larry}
Grasping for the Wind
Adam/The Wertzone

2008 proved to be another year of good reading. All told, I read over 80 books in 2008, most of which were novels, a few collections/anthologies and a handful of graphic novels.

Since I mentioned the best 2008 books I read in the annual SFFWorld Review (Part One, Fantasy, Part Two Science Fiction & Media), I’ll not limit myself here to just 2008 books.

The majority of the books I read last year (50 out of84) were released in 2008, which is pretty much the percentage I’ve been hitting in past falling years. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files continues to keep my interests very high. I made it through four of the novels, Dead Beat, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites as well as the novella Backup and the comic/graphic novel Welcome to the Jungle. Some may call these novels guilty pleasures, regardless, they are really entertaining reads. Most of the other non-2008 books I read were part of series that saw new volumes publish in 2008 or were reissues/compilations of earlier editions. On to the 2008 reads…

Rob Favorite Science Fiction Novel(s) Read in 2008

This was a dead tie between a new book for 2008, a genre classic, and a book I re-read this year. This year’s book was obviously Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.
Despite that analogy and the frightening overtones of the scope of this story, Doctorow provides a great balance and manages to keep the story upbeat throughout. He also gives the reader what amounts to a guide to security evasion and computer hacking. Since the book is told from Marcus’s first-person point-of-view, these passages are very readable and come across more of a conversation than anything else. Only a couple of these “conversational instructions” slowed the pace of the plot.

Doctorow’s novel is scary because it resonates so much with the real world; personal freedoms are sacrificed in order for our own “safety.” Doctorow evokes b
oth Orwell and Philip K. Dick in the sense of paranoia, but Doctorow (obviously) brings a more modern sensibility to the fore. Doctorow has been at the forefront of electronic rights and in the science fiction genre. Aside from the aforementioned slow patches, the novel is note-perfect and I found it very difficult to put the book down. Entertaining, enlightening and eye-opening, Little Brother will only further reinforce Cory Doctorow’s presence as one of the visionaries of free speech advocacy and great storytelling in the 21st Century.
The classic is Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal Starship Troopers, which I reviewed here on the blog earlier in 2008. At the time I said:
One thing that surprised me as I was reading the book was how little action and science-fictiony stuff happens for the better part of the novel. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think the best science fiction novels, like this one, have an utterly human quality to them. Even if Johnny Rico serves as something of a mouthpiece for Heinlein (as some have said), the character comes across as genuinely human.

Honorable mention goes to Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die, which I read for the third time this past year (and yes it is science fiction although it also works as fantasy). His voice, particularly as Caine, is the most compelling fictional hero I’ve ever read in novel form.

Rob’s Favorite Fantasy Novel(s) Read in 2008

Caine Black Knife was not only my favorite Fantasy novel of 2008, it was my top novel overall. It was great to get back into Caine’s head and hear his voice narrate for me.

Back to Caine, though, because Stover really leaves the reader no choice in the matter, which is not a complaint by any means. Because the majority of the novel is told through Caine’s voice and reactions, we as the reader are not given any other option on who to believe or trust. Caine’s POV is the only one and as such, his voice flows and filters the narrative more smoothly than just about any first person narrator this side of Severian of the Guild. The difference here is Severian is explicitly an unreliable narrator, Caine seems more reliable. To paraphrase and sum up the themes of Stover’s work, Caine isn’t trying to sell us anything, he puts his faults and scars on the table for all to view. His voice is frank, direct, and a terrifically engaging one that comes across as, for lack of a more refined term, a very likeable and endearing asshole. Then again, I can say that because I’ve never been on the opposite end of Caine’s frustrations.

In addition to Caine’s internal dialogue informing the narrative and plot, his dialogue with other characters helps to move the plot along at a brisk pace. With multi-character dialogue comprising multiple pages, I was again reminded of Roger Zelazny. From what I recall, vast pages of his Amber novels are primarily dialogue between characters. Here, both Stover and Zelazny’s dialogue is somewhat terse in that the exchanges between characters is brief as each character takes their turn speaking to the other, but dense in how it conveys the individual scenes of the novel and the over-reaching plot as a whole. It is a nice trick to pull of when it works so well; but one of those easy looking things you get a sense aren’t that easy to refine.

Another past favorite Neil Gaiman released a spectacular gem. That book, of course, was The Graveyard Book, another magical story from a living legend and storytelling master.

This unique ghost story is endlessly charming, wonderfully resonant, magically evocative, and compulsively readable. With the perfectly evoked balmy feel of the Graveyard, this is a book to return to at Hallowe’en every year.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind is one of the most powerful, haunting and beautifully written novels I have ever read. It defies genres and slips into fantasy mainly because of the wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The review has taken me a while to write because the novel was so powerful. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the conclusion to Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, The Hero of Ages and the conclusion Greg Keyes's Kingdom of Thorn and Bones trilogy The Born Queen.

Favorite Debut(s) of 2008

It was a pretty solid year, but standing out for me was Brent Weeks and his Night Angel Trilogy. With very little (compared to Rothfuss and Lynch) prepublication Internet buzz, this trilogy swept in the final three months of the year and really generated a great deal of steam, particularly at SFFWorld. I still haven’t read the final book in the trilogy, but I did review The Way of Shadows and Shadows Edge.

Taylor Anderson also impressed me with the first two books (Destroyermen I: Into the Storm and Destroyermen II: Crusade) of his alternate history/crossover saga about a World War II Naval Destroyer swept into a world with intelligent lemurs and lizards.

Favorite Undiscovered/Overlook Gem of 2008

By undiscovered/overlooked, I mean an author and/or book(s) that have been on the shelves for a couple of years but didn’t receive that much attention from the reading circles in which I find myself. In other words, SFFWorld, my blogroll, and Westeros. This just might have to go to Joshua Palmatier whose Throne of Amenkor trilogy was finished in January 2008. Granted, I came to these books late in 2008, but the series is very entertaining and seemed to be drowned out when The Skewed Throne was published in 2006 by cries of Rotfhuss and Lynch.

Favorite Publisher of the Year

Newish publishers continue to make big splashes in the genre; Pyr is trucking along and ended the year with great news – they are bringing James Barclay’s Raven novels to the US. These are very solid heroic fantasy novels in the David Gemmell vein. Not to be outdone, Orbit Books has made a considerable impact since its US debut in 2007. Orbit has been bringing Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels back into print and ended their publishing year with Brent Weeks’s Night Angel Trilogy, publishing the three books in successive months. Tor keeps trucking along, as do the other major publishers (Roc/Ace, DAW, Harper/Eos, Del Rey, and BantamSpectra). Smaller presses are growing and their books are looking terrific – NightShade Books and Subterranean Press have produced great limited editions; solid anthologies; and important & well regarded reprints.

As for favorite, this is a tough one because many of the publishers published interesting books in 2008. Pyr has been impressing me a lot in the past few years, but slightly newer (at least in the US) is Orbit Books who has been publishing a very diverse group of authors and keeping a relatively updated Web presence has impressed me the most in 2008.

Favorite Short Story Collections/Anthologyies Read in 2008

John Joseph Adams released three anthologies, two of which I read and were outstanding. Both are reprint anthologies and will likely stand as benchmarks and seminal anthologies in the respective subgenres. Wastelands is an awesome anthology of apocalyptic proportions. Here’s what I said about it:

Post-apocalyptic stories have long been a popular subset of Science Fiction and Fantasy. From short stories to novels to movies to television shows, the milieu of a people trying to cope with a world after the collapse of civilization has proven fertile ground for writer’s and reader’s imaginations for many years. In this collection, John Joseph Adams, long time editor at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction gathers some of the pre-eminent storytellers and their visions of a devastated world in this admirable collection. The introduction by John Joseph Adams sets the mood and tone for the collection, going into greater detail upon the subgenre.
With 85% of the stories working not just well, but extremely well for me, I can’t help but give this collection the highest recommendation. I think this will be a cornerstone for most reader’s shelves.

The Living Dead tackles Zombies and is just as solid:
Like his Wastelands anthology respective to post-apocalyptic fiction, Adams has culled together a massive amount (34 in total) number of stories on Zombies. To call this volume anything other than must have would be selling it short, the stories range a great number of years and capture many unique voices on one of the seminal images and iconic characters of Horror fiction and is something I know I’ll be pulling down every Hallowe’en. This impressive, massive anthology would make a great gift to give by the light of the Jack o’ Lantern.

Although Fragile Things was two years old by the time I got to it, Gaiman’s short stories still worked magnificently for me, especially the award-winning A Study in Emerald

David Weber’s Worlds of Weber retrospective was pretty good, too and works (as it did for me) as a great introduction to his work.

Favorite Author Whose Work I Revisited

Jack McDevitt. I went through a spate a few years ago where I read a good four or five of his novels, but nothing since. In that time, he won an award and published a slew of new novels. Most recently was The Devil’s Eye. That was the only book I read from him last year, but it reminded me that I really need to catch up with those books he published in the past few years.
Jack McDevitt returns with an all new novel featuring Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, the heroes of McDevitt’s 2006 Nebula Award Winning novel, Seeker. Though I’ve read a good portion of McDevitt’s output, The Devil’s Eye is the first book I’ve read by him in quite a while (having enjoyed most of his other novels, particularly Moonfall) and the first I’m reading to feature Benedict and Kolpath. Like the earlier Alex Benedict novels, The Devil’s Eye is a science fiction/mystery hybrid. The Alex Benedict novels are set approximately 10,000 years in our future, with humanity having spread across the galaxy encountering intelligent alien species. This other species, Ashyyur, is feared by humanity at large both for the tall appearance, lack of true speaking voice, and ability to read minds. Benedict is a dealer in archaeological antiquities, which serves to connect with the reader in that Benedict shows a predilection for 20th Century antiquities. The far-future setting also is quite recognizable as human, except on a galactic scale.

Most Disappointing Reads of 2008

Three books didn’t work for me that I had high hopes for when I began reading them last year. Each book disappointed me for different reasons, though.

Thunderer by Felix Gilman came out late enough in 2007 to really be considered a 2008 book, and it just didn’t work for me. I had relatively high hopes for it because people whose taste I often trust had good things to say about the book. The book wasn’t really bad, but it just didn’t click with me and may be one of those books I try at a later date.

Empress by Karen Miller was the other major reading disappointment of 2008 for me. The first, I don’t know, quarter of the book was pretty gripping. I was in synch with what Miller was trying to do in building up what amounts to an Evil Empress. The character, Hekat, was engaging. However, something really turned the bend for me in both the character of Hekat and the story itself. I began hating her, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a main character. That hate very quickly turned into outright annoyance, which spread from Hekat to the whole story.

Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner was disappointing, too. I really enjoyed, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed, Fleet of Worlds by the same duo. The sequel really missed the mark for me and didn’t capture what I enjoyed about the first one.

So what’s more a frustrating disappointing read? Expectations based on other’s recommendations, a book just losing everything that made it good for a small early portion, or a disappointing sequel not living up to its predecessor?

OK, I think I’ve covered it all, in terms of books read. I will, most likely, remember something a few days after posting this, though.

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