Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Best reads of 2017...



While I posted fewer books this year than recent years, there was still a good selection of quality books that stuck out, regardless of year published.  (See here for the best books published only in 2017.)  Regardless fiction or non-fiction, novel or anthology, the following are personal favorites read in 2017:

Remainder by Tom McCarthy – While some go so far as to describe McCarthy’s debut as ‘avant garde’, I can say in the least it’s a unique piece of fiction that has no peer I’m aware of.  About a man who becomes strangely obsessed with re-creating images and scenes from his memories, coming into a huge sum of money allows him to realize his desires in the most unexpected ways.  From staging an entire apartment building, complete with actors as residents, to a murder scene on the street, McCarthy uncovers something bizarrely, simply, truly human in essence, yet very literary form.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman – One of those novels so colorfully delivered as to wedge itself permanently in the brain, this tale of a feisty, foul-mouthed, 5-foot Jewish boxer caught up in Nazi affairs beyond his ken is nothing but matchless.  Beauman having a way with words, the dynamic prose etches the story in the reader’s mind as much as its color sweeps the reader up into its inimitable plot.

The Summer Isles by Ian Macleod – Ian Macleod is a master-class writer, and The Summer Isles may be his best.  Where George Orwell’s brand of totalitarian oppression strikes a chord in readers for the fear it instills, Macleod delves into the more subtle, realistic side of political tyranny through the story of a disgraced professor in an alternate history England.  Brilliant story—and one that holds numerous parallels to current political practice compared to Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley – Subjective, I know, I know… but I consider Dimension of Miracles the best of Sheckley’s novels I’ve read to date.  Quintessential Sheckley, it possesses all of the existentialist wit, nihilism couched discreetly in humor, and wildly plotted ideas possessing fully human foundations that readers might expect from Sheckley, all in one tight, highly imaginative package.  

The Moon and the Other by John Kessell – Likely the most realistic matriarchy ever created in fiction, Kessell’s story is, in fact, focused on the male reaction to it.  Set on the moon, one female-led society attempts to retain its independence as one of the multiple patriarchies surrounding it attempts to bring it in line.  Primarily featuring two men, one an agent of the patriarchy who is sent to the matriarchy to soften it up and the other a playboy living the good life among the matriarchs, Kessell does a great job avoiding utopianism all the while examining men, power, and the desire for it.

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear – A surprise considering the author (i.e. I expected the novel to be more hard sf in space), Hull Three Zero is technically a generation starship story, but Weird or dark fantasy would, on the surface, seem better descriptors.  Bear effortlessly combining these areas of fiction into a story with human depth, it is likely the best things he’s ever written.  I listened to the audio version of this book, and to this day certain images and scenes pop into my head when I happen to be in the places where I was listening.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding – Combining research and onsite journalism, author Nick Reding looked to a typical Midwestern American town and available to attempt tom come to a broader understanding of the meth epidemic that plagues rural, working class areas.  Speaking with everyone, from junkies to dealers, the town’s mayor to its police, the spectrum of perspectives gets page time for as unsettling the ultimate conclusions and reasons may be. 

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton – For whatever reason (perhaps blindness considering many others think of the novel as just average), Brooks-Dalton’s novel debut about two people, one an Antarctic astronomer left alone on the Earth after a major catastrophe and the other an astronaut on her way back to Earth after a successful Jupiter mission, struck a chord in me, particularly the downplay of typical sf elements (e.g. science minutiae, wallowing in catastrophe, space ship porn, etc.) and the stronger focus on the elements of humanity that both transcend yet react to these circumstances.  Have a read and decide for yourself…

Stargazer’s Embassy by Eleanor Lerman – A bizarre story that constantly has the reader’s mind turning, wondering what the ‘real story’ is, Stargazer’s Embassy is about a woman who is able to see aliens lurking in dark corners.  She accepts them as normal until learning that the peculiar tattoo on her wrist is the same symbol the aliens use.  Not a wild bit of science fiction escapism, Lerman’s ultimate intent in the story is wholly relevant, meaning that once the ‘real story’ is finally revealed, a layer of meaning is exposed that makes the wondering worthwhile.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch – A work of eco-feminism (not an area of fiction I jump to read), Yuknavitch uses a typical science fiction scenario (the affluent orbit Earth in a space station while the wretched live in a nuclear wasteland below) but focuses on humanity’s most basic, physiological aspects in telling the story of a Joan of Arc-type character’s defiance below of an oppressive tyrant above.  Rendered in affected, poetic prose, Yunavitch lays bare an idea that, perhaps, is more idea than story, but at least does so in disturbing, aware fashion.

Glimpses by Lewis Shiner – I’m a music lover.  A wide variety graces my collection, including classic rock, which is likely why Shiner’s novel about a man who discovers a way to record the great lost albums of the 60s—rumored recordings like The Doors’ Celebration of the Lizard, The Beach Boys’ Smile, or Jimi Hendrix’s Last Rays of the New Rising Sun—had such an impact on me.  The man’s issues resolved through the music, it’s a domestic, emotionally charged rollercoaster worth every page.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx – Perhaps for its length, or the fact significant portions are set in the part of the world I grew up in, or just because it’s a good book, for whatever reason, Annie Proulx’s historical saga of the world’s logging industry Barkskins made a strong impression.  Equal parts history and character drama, beneath these aspects lies a layer of commentary on the greedy, short-sighted usage of the world’s timber and other resources.

The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker – The final chapter in the Aspect-Emperor series, this is the type of story ending that most if not all writers of epic fantasy aim for but oh so often fail to achieve.  Everything readers of the series have been hoping for, The Unholy Consult is the clash of all clashes that sees all the spinning gears achieve cognition (get it?).

Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories by Terry Bisson – The first collection by Bisson I’ve read, it won’t be the last.  Each story typically possessing a purpose or intelligence that only reveals itself upon the final page or paragraph, it’s a rewarding, satisfying assortment of stories that, while technically science fiction or fantasy, are, in fact, more high-brow.  From the nostalgic title story that somehow manages to be both figurative and literal to the dialogue-only stories, faux lawns to toxic donuts, I’m beginning to believe Bisson is secret of speculative fiction deserving of a wider readership.

Requiem for the American Dream by Noel Chomsky – Putting its finger square on the primary cause of America and the world’s ills, Requiem for the American Dream is a distilled version of Chomsky’s worldview.  Highlighting the manner in which the elite and powerful look out for their own interests more than that of the people they rule or employ, Chomsky takes to task a number of sacred ideals, including the illusion of democracy, ‘the audacity of hope’, the failings of liberal capitalism, and the historical framework upon which it is all built and perpetuates.  For anyone seeking answers to questions regarding the ills of the American system (or just a gateway into Chomsky), this book is it.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – If I had to choose a best novel from among those listed here, it would have to be Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (or Macleod’s The Summer Isles).  The Bone Clocks has everything a masterpiece requires.  Brilliant prose, an atypical structure that suits the story—stories, actually—being told, and an agenda that is worthwhile yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

Exit West by Mohsin HamidGrapes of Wrath for the early 21st century, Hamid’s story of two ordinary people fleeing an unnamed conflict in an unnamed Middle Eastern country highlights the current refugee and immigration issue in a very human fashion.  Giving faces to what is often perceived as a faceless horde by the west, it’s a book shortlisted for the Man Booker with good reason, and was my book of the year for 2017.

Honorable Mentions
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale, The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan, Moonglow by Michael Chabon, Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe, Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey Ford, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett, Moskva by Jack Grimwood, 2084: The Anthology ed. by George Sandison, The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss, Nod by Adrian Barnes, and The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon.

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