Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Reads of 2016

Regardless of year published, the following are the books I read in 2016 that stuck out for one reason or another.  (The best of only books published in 2016 can be found here.) The gods know I am horrendous at doing my 21st century duty and reading as many female writers as male, homosexual as hetero, three-eyed as two.  My ratios are bad.  But when looking through the reviews I posted, this might have been one of my better years for diversity.  In no particular those that lingered are:

Breathmoss & Other Exhalations by Ian Macleod – Containing some of the best short fiction of Macleod’s career, this is a collection that can be read several times to discover the details of setting and character, in a wide variety of sub-genres, and all the while drooling over Macleod’s glorious prose.

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Not for the faint of heart, Ballard's collage—sorry, collection—sorry, tableaux—sorry, mosaic—sorry, I don’t know wtf to call it—tests the limits of what precisely fiction is.  A visual/ideological experience in the least, Ballard combines and recombines imagery of the 70s into a vision both political and artistic that will not be to everyone’s liking, but it is very much mine.

Distraction by Bruce Sterling – Quite possibly Sterling's best novel, Distraction is the purest distillation of his unique brand of satire.  Politicized, Sterling takes more than one crack at American politics, effortlessly cutting it off at the knees all the while asking humorously posed questions in scenarios having one foot in comedy and the other all too reality.

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand – Like Macleod’s collection, Errantry contains some of the best short fiction from Hand’s career.  From the heartfelt "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" to the bizarre “Summerteeth”, the author covers a lot of ground, showcasing her strengths lie not just in novels.

Night's Master and The Book of the Damned by Tanith Lee – Both five stars in my book.  I couldn't decide between the two, so just threw both into the list.  Memories linger from each, from the mythopoeic mode of Night’s Master to the gothic macabre of The Book of the Damned, Lee is on point in each.  Gems waiting to be rediscovered.

Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan – While I think Cadigan's later novels Fools and Synners are better, her debut is still killer.  The spritely bounce and leap of idea transected by fresh usage of the English language make for an interesting novel, even if the underlying substance is not as sophisticated as the glossy veneer might have it.

Kefahuchi Tract trilogy by M. John Harrison – Publishing moves on, but for certain M. John Harrison's trilogy, comprised of Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space, is the final statement on science fiction.  More will be said, but it will still scrabble at the monumental peak that is Kefahuchi.

Radiance by Catherynne Valente – Described by Valente herself as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery, that’s only the beginning of this Venus story.  Lush prose telling an engaging and intelligent story, Valente is on top of her game in this, likely her best novel.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes –  While essentially The Shining Girls 2.0, Beukes trims away the spurious blood and violence to focus on the more relevant human topics: the socio-technological environment we are all a part of, and how misanthropy can interact with it.  Thus, while it is a repeat effort in terms serial killer novels, Broken Monsters is a significant step ahead—almost as if Beukes had to re-write the story to prove she could produce the better effort.

Ware tetralogy by Rudy Rucker – Perhaps because I read the four books essentially back to back to back to back, Rucker's gonzo look at the future of technology made a strong, radical impression.  Or perhaps it’s because there is simply nothing like it in science fiction?  (Software, Wetware, Freeware and Realware)

Three California's trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson – Like Rucker's tetralogy, I read Robinson's trilogy in a short period of time (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge).  But where Rucker’s effort is gonzo, Robinson’s is quite staid.  Three very different looks at the future of Southern California (no, no earthquakes), Robinson pokes at post-apocalypse, dystopia, and utopia, all with a very subtle hand (i.e., no zombies or magic tech).

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – Perhaps the most brutal novel in the English language, McCarthy gives the reader a gut’s worth of reality checks, both physical and philosophical.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – Reminiscent of a Gene Wolfe novel, though addressing Britsich, particularly Anglo-Saxon history, this beautiful novel has classic Arhurian tropes of fiction, but is anything but standard high-fantasy.  Ishiguro is a phenomenal writer.

Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford – Just when you think Ford cannot top himself, he does it again.  Another way of saying this is: another superb collection from Ford, from the fire and ice of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” to the alternately philosophical “The Dream of Reason”, there is everything to love.

Area X: Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer – Many readers complain that the quality of trilogy faded (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), and while I would agree the third and final book is the weakest, it’s only by a little.  Overall, VanderMeer has concocted a wonderfully equivocal vision of Northern Florida that plays with timeless tropes of science fiction (regions whose rules of physics are nothing like our own) and the human psyche, particularly the play and interplay with existence in the 21st century.  The magnum opus of his career thus far.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer – What I picked as novel of the year for 2016, Palmer digs into the psyche of social media and big data in a time travel story that is anything but time travel.  The characters are drawn from real life.  The technological concerns are in direct relation to the evolution of society, culture, and individuality.  The meaning of science is brought into focus in a way beyond good and evil.  And above all an existential questing for identity and understanding in this milieu is examined.  Great novel.

The Story of the Stone – Barry Hughart – You want unique?  You want witty humor?  You want off-the-wall plotting?  Set in a “China that never was”, those are some of the hallmarks of Hughart’s novel.  Time is threatening to wipe this and the other two Master Li and Number Ten Ox novels from the map, so best go find it while you can!!

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter – Carter is a goddess of modern and post-modern fiction, and The Magic Toyshop, for as darkly and symbolically as it defies the lightness of its title, is some of her best.  A young girl’s coming of age, when her middle-class English existence is dumped on its head, she is forced under the roof of a harsh uncle.  Thankfully, the Irish family he employs as assistants in his toyshop contrive to make the time pass a little smoother—a little.

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