Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Best Books I Read in 2014

Yeah, we're well into 2015 and I'm just now making my list of my favorite books from last year. Well, what do you expect, this is free content. Suckers.

Anyway, I read a lot of books last year, but very few of them were actually released last year. But that won't stop me from making a list! No rereads, because otherwise The Lathe of Heaven would be on my list every other year. Oh, and it's an alphabetical list, but the first entry is probably my #1 anyway.

On to the list!

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory (2014): Long review here. Oh come on, of course this was going to be on my list. This book follows a former scientist who accidentally created a "God drug," and now has an angel tagging her every move. The research team (who have all overdosed on the drug, and have their own personal gods) decides never to release the drug, but it gets out anyhow, and the thrillerish plot involves Lyda's quest to reach the drug's source and wipe it out. There's also fun stuff like a gentle rancher of miniature bison who takes a drug to become a contract killer, frat boys who take pills to turn "gay for a day," and a CIA operative who overdoses on a drug to promote mental clarity and now sees people as amorphous blobs when not jacked up. There are a LOT of drugs in this book, okay? And a lot of examinations of the nature of faith, mental illness, addiction, etc. It's like the author took everything I like to read about and put it in a blender. I'm hella nominating it for the Nebula and Hugo, and not only because it was the only SF novel I read that was released last year (though I should have the Southern Reach books soonish).

Emissaries from the Dead/The Third Claw of God by Adam-Troy Castro (2008/2009): Yes, this is two books, but it's a series, so whatever. These are mysteries set in an SFnal world that Castro has visited in several of his stories. What I liked about these books were how good they were as mysteries. Often in books that blend speculative tropes with other genres, the other genre takes a back seat. Whereas here, while Castro's universe is well-sketched and immersive, they are at heart more mystery than SF and the books are written like traditional mysteries: interrogations, logical deduction, a final reveal scene, and kooky sidekicks. Claw is in fact a locked-room mystery, and his sleuth (a six-year-old war criminal all grown up) uses brains more than tech to get to the truth. I absolutely love Castro's short fiction ("During the Pause" is one of the most perfect stories I've ever read, and "The Thing About Shapes to Come" is a recent favorite... you know, just go read all his stories right now), and his style holds up just as well in a longer form. I wish there were more of these books. I wish I could read a new Andrea Cort book every year, and you all know I am not a fan of series books by and large. But these exist, anyway, and you should read them.

Empty Space by M. John Harrison (2012): Seeing as how I've reread the other Light books several times over the years, I should have read this when it first came out, but somehow it slipped through the cracks. It follows the adventures of humans living near the cosmic event known as the Kefahuchi Tract, except for the strand that follows serial killer/astrophysicist's Michael Kearney's ex-wife. There's weird shit happening on every single page, from data infecting human flesh to people turned into spaceships to a rain of baby shoes on an alien beach to a summerhouse that burns intermittently but is never consumed. Anyway, if you're already a fan of the Lightverse you'll like this. If you're looking for a more traditional space opera, go elsewhere.

Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will (2013): Long review here. Graphic novel, not genre. A fictionalized autobiography (according to the author) of a teenager with bipolar disorder, drawn in a multitude of styles to portray the protagonist's spiral into madness and the struggle out of it. Jeremy (the protagonist) is an artist, and while that should annoy me in the way I won't read books where the characters are writers, it works here as Will expertly shows Jeremy's fear of losing his creative capacity with treatment. I've sort of fallen away from reading comics, because a lot of what I was reading wasn't really inspiring me. One weird quirk I have is that for as much as I love SF prose, I pretty much only like "mundane" comics. Maybe that's because so many SF comics are about superheroes, which I find kind of boring and insular for people who aren't in the know. And while I read very few graphic novels this year, I'm so glad I read this.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988): Somehow I managed to avoid reading the Culture series until last year, despite the fact that it's about a far-future anarcho-socialist utopia. How the hell did that happen?! Jernau Gurgeh, a "man of the Culture," is invited to an alien world to play an extremely complicated game which forms the foundation of the backwards capitalistic Azadian Empire. The plot is really just an excuse to explore aspects of the Culture and compare them to a society based on our own, but I totally don't mind that when the ideas are so interesting. I also loved the fact that the Culture is an unabashed utopia, so refreshing in these days where you have your pick of outwardly dreary dystopia or a bright happy future that's a dystopia in disguise (and my own work isn't helping matters). I can tell there will be many visits to the Culture in my future.

(NOTE: All but one of these books are from the 21st century and most of them are series novels. Either my reading tastes are changing or I've just run out of all the good books from the last century.)

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