The First Twenty Books of 2014

As previously mentioned, graduate school was hell on my reading. To get back in the groove I resolved that this year I would read at least one book a week. Twelve weeks in, I’m ahead of schedule. Here are the first twenty books I’ve read this year. (Collage above made with this online tool.)

  1. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. This one failed to impress me, and I doubt I will read any other books in the series.
  2. Solaris: The Definitive Edition by Stanislaw Lem (audiobook). This is the new translation direct from Polish released in 2008. I’d tried to read the previous translation once, which was actually a retranslation from French, and found it unimpressive. I loved the direct translation, though, and can see why it’s held in such esteem among Lem’s works.
  3. Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin. This is a reread, inspired by the book’s presence on Kevin Brockmeier’s list of his 50 favorite SFF books. I thought it delightful fun the first time, and I still feel that way about it. It’s a collection of linked short stories, but both times I’ve read it in a single sitting.
  4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is really a gorgeous, ambitious book. Carmen Machado loves it, and had been recommending it for a few years. The novel’s formal conceit is that it is narrated by Death, and while this is achieved with great sensitivity and beautiful language, my own lack of affection for Cartesian dualism means I found it less affecting than I otherwise might. I suspect that’s why I merely really liked it rather than loving it.
  5. Superman/Shazam: First Thunder by Judd Winick and Joshua Middleton. I was inspired to read this by Justin Pierce, who posted to Facebook a page from it in which Superman is furious when he learns that Captain Marvel is a transformed child. That scene was probably the best thing in the book, but it was fun.
  6. The Genocides by Thomas Disch. This is another one from Kevin’s list. It’s one of the bleakest books I’ve ever fully enjoyed. Humanity is uncomplicatedly eliminated as unseen aliens turn the planet into a monoculture for a genetically engineered crop. As unremitting an apocalypse as I’ve ever read.
  7. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. This, as is obvious if you’ve clicked the very first link in the first paragraph, is a reread. I bought a bunch of copies of the play and threw a table reading party. We all drank mulled wine and hammed it up.
  8. Options by Robert Sheckley. After Van Choojitarom challenged people to come up with a novel odder than Voyage to Arcturus (which I still need to read), I offered this as a possibility. When I was 16 it seemed to me merely a memorably enthusiastic work of metafiction. Reading it now, though, it strikes me as an absurdist take on the difficulties of the creative process. Reading it makes me feel like I do when I’m struggling at the keyboard, and yet it’s entertaining. It’s also short enough that despite the overt metafictional elements, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Might be my favorite Sheckley now. (Note if you’re planning to give it a shot, I’m pretty sure the opening few chapters intentionally read as terribly-written. Which is to say, I think they are well written, but in intentionally bad prose.)
  9. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Yet another from Kevin’s list. I read it as a kid and didn’t find it terribly impressive then, by Kevin’ and Jo Walton’s appreciation for the book convinced me to give it another chance. They were right. It’s really an excellent book, for all the reasons Jo outlines. Also, I realize I must have been under ten years old the last time I read it, because I remember thinking that if the events in the book were to happen, I would have been among the posthuman cohort.
  10. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm. I’d never read one of her novels, and this one won the Hugo award in 1977, so seemed a good place to start. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I liked the opening section well enough, and the writing is good throughout, but I found culture of the clone generations unconvincing.
  11. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler. I love everything by Fowler I’ve ever read, which is several short stories and now three novels. This one is now my second favorite, behind We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, my favorite novel I read last year. Sarah Canary is lyrical and brilliant. Also, this is yet another one from Kevin’s list, which has yet to lead me astray.
  12. The Steps of the Sun by Walter Tevis. This is the last of Tevis’s science fiction novels that I hadn’t read, after reading The Man Who Fell to Earth and Mockingbird last year. I have yet to read anything by Tevis I don’t find engrossing, but this is a weird one. The opening I loved so much it seemed on pace to become a favorite, but toward the end the book takes a turn that I’m still trying to figure out my feelings toward. I still liked it, but I think less than the previous two.
  13. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. I’d read a few of these stories before, such as “Secretary” (the basis for the movie) and “A Romantic Weekend”(a favorite of mine), but never the whole collection. It’s good. Completely unsentimental psychological realism, full of obsessions and kinks. I’ve got another Gaitskill collection on deck for later.
  14. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang. This was a reread that I assigned my science fiction writing class, in advance of Ted doing a Skype visit. I think this book is perfect.
  15. Hawkeye vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and David Aja. This was a gift from Matt when I visited Portland. It’s great fun, deserving of all the superlatives on the cover. Each issue is a tiny, clever action movie, the cleverest one from the point of view of a dog.
  16. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. After Portland I find myself on a bit of a comics kick. This is the third of the Century volumes, and I didn’t enjoy it that much. Harry Potter as the antichrist was fun enough, but at this point LoEG seems more about enacting its conceit than about telling a story. Still, there were some nice tender scenes between Orlando and Mina.
  17. Weapons of the Metabarons by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Travis Charest, and Zoran Janjetov. A fairly forgettable addendum to an unforgettable series. I bought an omnibus collection of the original Metabarons series in Portland and will probably reread it soon.
  18. The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. Kevin’s writing is beautiful. This book is about a city populated by everyone who is dead but still remembered by someone alive, and what happens to that city when everyone on Earth starts to die.
  19. Fourth Mansions by R. A. Lafferty. I bought this book on the strength of its chapter titles, which are things like “Now I will dismember the world with my hands” and “But I eat them up, Frederico, I eat them up.” This book was…strange. Not bad, but not good either. I’m not convinced that it is about anything except itself. It’s an internally consistent system of symbolism that doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to the real world. The language was very entertaining, but it’s verbal fireworks bursting above an insubstantial landscape.
  20. Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. I liked this more than Century: 2009, because it’s more strongly narrative and because I enjoyed the H. P. Lovecraft and John Campbell references. Still a minor work, though.

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  1. > I’m not convinced that it is about anything except itself. It’s an internally consistent system of symbolism that doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to the real world.

    It’s definitely about something: it’s just that it’s so unusual to run into a believing old-school Catholic that it looks incredibly bizarre and fantastical. You can see the same beliefs surfacing in his other works like _The Devil Is Dead_, _Past Master_, etc, but it’s probably most easily understood (because the historical setting makes everything blunter and harder to hide) in _The Flame is Green_.

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