Friday, January 11, 2019

Best Reads of 2018

Regardless of year published (see here for 2018’s books, specifically), fiction or non-fiction, or novel or collection, the following are the roughly twenty books that stuck out in 2018. In no particular order, they are:

A Fortress in Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – An extraordinary bildungsroman, Lethem takes elements of his own Brooklyn upbringing and melds them into the story of Dylan Ebdus’ growth and development into adulthood. Brooklyn evolving literally under Dylan’s feet, it’s a clash of cultures, race, class, and domestic life with a soft heart that leaves its mark on the reader for its brutal honesty.

Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day – A dynamic, wonderful collection of short stories, Day’s deceptively simple hand guides readers through a forest of scarred hope and silver linings. The focus on humanity throughout, themes such as loss, personal paradigm shifts, and domestic issues permeate this superb collection.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan – Kiernan’s magnum opus (to date, at least—she is capable of topping herself), she takes the main premise of The Red Tree and develops what was a good book into a great one. Entirely shifting settings, this story of a seemingly schizophrenic woman tossed on the waves of uncertainty and bad decision has all of the fine mystery between allegory and reality a humanist novel could have.

334 by Thomas Disch – A collection of novellas interwoven through a fictional NYC apartment building, what Disch’s near future lacks in terms of action and drama it doubles down on examining the potential effects of technology on the commonalities of urban life, and by extension all humanity. Deceivingly simple, this collection/novel slowly builds momentum into its collage of life that is the final novella.

Time Was by Ian McDonald – I’ve said Ian McDonald is among the greatest science fiction writers of all time, and while his oeuvre has become a little too mainstream the past decade, 2018’s Time Was nevertheless cemented his greatness in my mind. The gorgeous prose used in rendering a time-travel love story fully human (something extremely few writers can do) showed yet another side of McDonald’s prodigious talent, rounding him out as artist and master technician. Like a Swiss Army knife, I now believe he can write in any style successfully.

VALIS by Philip K. Dick – While a mess in terms of coherent ideas, this semi-autobiographical novel of one man’s attempts at coming to terms with existence is likely the most Dickian of PKD’s novels. In terms of prose it is likewise among the best written of Dick’s novels, its erudition shining all the brighter for it.

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente – Containing several laugh out loud moments (at least for me), Space Opera is uproariously, humorously humanitarian science fiction. About a galactic talent show to decide the fate of Earth, our “hero” inspires as many guffaws as tears when realizing how representative some of his actions and behaviors are. This book will likely not garner much attention given Valente’s singularity of style, but there is worthwhile substance.

A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa – An insider’s view to North Korea, this memoir tells of Ishikawa’s Korean upbringing in Japan, his family’s unfortunate decision to move to the ‘socialist paradise’ of North Korea, and the decades of oppression and suffering that followed, A River in Darkness confirms much of Western media’s depiction of the “People’s Democratic Republic” through a personal lens difficult to shake or forget.

On Writing by Stephen King – A combination writing guide and memoir, King doesn’t stick rigidly to either mode, making for a short but personal look into the bestselling author’s view to writing good fiction while relating the real life backdrop to his more famous works. I am generally not a fan of King’s books, but this one is engaging for the inside-outside variety of angles—the craft itself to the existence which feeds it.

2001: An Odyssey in Words ed. by Ian Whates & Tom Hunter – The central conceit seems cheap (all stories are 2,001 words long), but the majority of stories are far from it. A surprisingly engaging anthology, 2001 contains some of the best short science fiction I’ve read in a while. Spirituality and wonder packed into the condensed stories, it truly makes the reader wonder about the effects of constraint.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier – An in-depth look at the development of sixteen video games, this excellent piece of field journalism aims to give the average video game player a backstage look at what developers, creators, producers, sponsors, etc. do in order to get their games on the market. Obviously not of interest to anyone who doesn’t play video games, it nevertheless highlights in honest, informative fashion the blend of art and business that is the modern phenomenon known as video games.

Song of Time by Ian Macleod – Another Ian and another best writer of the current generation, this story of a dying composer who has the pure, naked body of a healthy young man wash up on her shore one evening is a rich dip into dynamics and questions, regrets and hopes of existence—an excellent novel.

The Stone Tide by Gareth Rees – A dark, heavy, and wholly cathartic novel, The Stone Tide is so autobiographical as to make the reader wonder whether a new form of fiction is being attempted. The dark personal issues of the main character balanced against a lighter discussion of Cornwall and the eccentric life of Aleister Crowley, if it weren’t for Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, I likely would have chosen this as my favorite novel of 2018.

Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley – A lot of fiction anthropomorphizing dogs (a lot more than you would think), Crowley’s Ka shifts to crows and brings to life the perennial Dar Oakley. Successfully portraying crow sentience (that gray area between completely non-understandable animal and relatable yet simple human), the novel is, in fact, more about the passage of time and what humanity has done with the Earth we’ve inherited. A surprisingly readable, powerful novel…

Global Discontents by Noam Chomsky – Concise views into a number of Chomsky’s understandings and beliefs regarding world and domestic American politics, the book is yet one more reason Chomsky has the credibility and oversight unlike so few other people—even in his 80s. You want the reality of the world, read Chomsky.

Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan – Duncan’s second collection (and already hard to get your hands on), it brings together some amazing pieces of short fiction—”The Chief Designer”, “Close Encounters”, and the title story among them. Some of the best short fiction written the past decade, Duncan is criminally underappreciated—the variety, the true originality, the authorial voicing, I could go on and on and on.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux – One of those novels one almost forgets about the story given the amazing quality of the prose, Strange Bodies tells of an ascetic British professor who gets in over his head reviewing what is purported to be newly discovered letters from his academic focus, Samuel Johnson. Evolving into a story about the possible effects of semantics on the mind, it is science fiction literally from a literary perspective.

Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood – My beach read of the year. Grimwood is so smooth and suave in style that I sometimes believe he could convert the most mundane, overused tropes and stereotypes in fiction and make them feel something new and fresh. This spy story set in post-WWII East Germany is precisely that. Just relax and read.

Fuzzy Dice by Paul Di Filippo – As gonzo-wack as self-actualization gets, Di Filippo's prodigious imagination combined with his word skills makes for truly unique, enjoyable, and amazingly enough, at the bottom level, human fiction. I don't think even Jung dreamed the sub-conscious held such a path to self-awareness.

Wolves by Simon Ings – Where most books place science and technology one side of the good/bad fence, Wolves transcends the dichotomy to tell the story of one man's personal struggles against the backdrop of technological evolution. Though the book appeared for a moment on 2014's radar, it disappeared quickly, and wrongfully so. This is great science fiction.

Gnonom by Nick Harkaway - For all the reasons stated above, this is my novel of the year. Yes, Harkaway commits sins of writing. Yes, he sometimes cannot control the fount of words bubbling inside of him. And yes the novel is likely longer than it should be. But there is a power and passion for writing and human existence at work here that is worth the time of readers interested in intelligent, wildly prosaic fiction addressing the creep and spread of technology. If you liked Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, this is absolutely for you.

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