The best books I read this year

I read a lot. This year for the first time I actually kept track of all the books I read. As of today the total is 71. I just started Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel The Company Man (very good, btw) and will certainly finish it by tomorrow. Next up is Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley and I may get through another before Jan. 1.  (I read fast and I always have. In 8th grade I read Decline and Fall of the Third Reich twice.)

So out of all those books these are the best one’s I read this year in history, fantasy, SF and what is usually called Fiction. Very few of them were published this year if it matters.

I am always on the look out for something to read and I don’t care what the topic is, so if you’ve read anything really good lately please let me know.  I am particularly looking for a good biography of Lord Palmerston and a history of the Hanseatic League in English. Now you know why Mrs. CollateralDamage finds me so difficult to shop for.

History (First Person)

  • The Indian War of 1864 by Eugene F. Ware — This manuscript was discovered after the death of Ware who served as an officer in the war against the Native Americans during the Civil War. It is a superbly well-written account of life on the frontier and life in the frontier army. While he is certainly a racist, he also shows surprising moments of compassion.
  • My Diary North And South by William Howard Russell — It astounds me that this book is out of print. Russell was England’s best and most acclaimed journalist in the middle 19th century. This book is the story of the year or so he spent covering the start of the US Civil War. Russell was soon hated by both the armies and civilians of the North and the South because he was in fact an impartial reporter. The story of his effort to get out of the U.S. and back to England is, by itself, more than enough reason to read this. He was a remarkable writer, too.

History (Narrative)

  • Constantinople by Philip Mansel — A history of the city under Ottoman rule from 1453 to 1922. Until the Young Turks overthrew the Ottomans and began forcing out non-Turkish peoples Constantinople was the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Its many, many different ethnic and religious groups forged a unique collective identity and a truly fascinating city. This was done through bloodshed and eventual acceptance that anyone from the city — no matter what their background — was better than anyone not from the city.
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman –Fascinating look at our Civil War from the outside and where I found out about William Howard Russell.
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk — Lots of appearances by William Howard Russell and more terrifying and true adventures than I would have believed possible. There are just far, far too many similarities to the U.S. recent invasions of the same areas.

Science Fiction

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami — I really can’t describe this book so I’m just putting in someone else’s summary of the opening:  “A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.” That last phrase is quite an understatement.
  • The Dervish House by  Ian McDonald — Had I not read 1Q84 this would have been the best SF I read this year. It is set in Istanbul and I picked it up just after reading Constantinople so I can say with confidence that he gets the city and its history perfectly. I won’t go into the plot except to say it’s very good and very plausible. My favorite element though was one of the main characters, an old man, who with three of his old friends are the last members of a Greek orthodox church still in the city and most of their scenes take place at the cafe where they gather for coffee and talk. I would have given anything to have joined them.
  • Ares Express by Ian McDonald — This is such a wild, fantastical, fun story of life on a strange railroad-based society on another planet that I had to keep checking to see it was the same guy who wrote Dervish House. It is not as good as Dervish House but it is very good.

FANTASY

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss — This is fantasy fiction for grown-ups — the characters, plot and setting are all deep and believable. This is the best new fantasy writer I have read in at least a decade.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle — Written in 1968 and considered one of the all time classics of the genre, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. It deserves its reputation. And Mr. Beagle, as my brother Aristo and his wife Stacy can attest with much more knowledge, is a really great guy.
  • The Knight by Gene Wolfe — If Gene Wolfe wrote a grocery list I would pay to read it. In this an American is transported to a fantasy world. Any resemblence to anything else you’ve read with that device ends there. Wolfe is almost totally unknown outside the world of genre fiction and that is a shame. I also reccommend his great collection of short works: The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories … and Other Stories.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — I am a huge fan of Abercrombie’s work. He and Glenn Cook are the best writers I’ve read telling epic fantasy stories from the view of the grunts on the bottom of the chain of command. Like the battle of Helms Deep narrated by one of the front line orcs. Red Country is my favorite of Abercrombie’s to date because it tells stories that are only epic to the people involved in them, not because the FATE OF THE WORLD is involved. (I hate FATE OF THE WORLD as a plot device. ) The stakes — and the rewards — are small but far from unimportant.

So-Called-Traditional Fiction:

  • Hav by Jan Morris — A travelogue to a fictitious, nearly isolated European nation somewhere between Italy and Greece. Nothing and everything happens in this book. It reminded me of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars — not in a derivative way — for perfectly documenting a culture and a world that don’t exist. You will want to buy train or boat tickets to go here (there is no airport yet).
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad/A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul — I read them in that order and they bookend colonialism and its impacts. Conrad’s story is a tragedy that is heroic in scope and examines the costs to the colonizers of being the overlords. There are elements that remind me of Melville’s non-Moby writing — the atmosphere/sense of place and also because it has a plot that would have been hackneyed in the hands of a lesser writer. Naipul presents a tragedy on a minute scale. It is the story of the aftermath of colonialism. It is set in Africa and the main character is from a family that moved their during colonialism from another colonized nation. The society has broken down and then found a great new leader and everyone is struggling to figure out what it means to be from this nation. That is a gross simplification but it will have to do.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … J.G. Ballard

Ballard If you’re an American chances are very slim you’ve even heard of him let alone read him. In the UK – where they seem much more open to speculative fiction – Ballard is a Significant Name & Writer.

I’ll be honest, I’ve only read the end of the world trilogy: The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World. I tried to read Empire of the Sun several times and found the writing so beautiful that I couldn’t get very far into it. I know that doesn’t make sense but it’s true nonetheless. (I’ve been meaning to read his story “The Assassination of JFK Considered as a Downhill Road Race” from The Atrocity Exhibition for something like 30 years – how’s that for procrastination?")

All that said even my limited reading made it clear to me he was one of the greats. The Crystal World is about exactly what the title implies: for unknown reasons a crystallization is spreading across earth, turning everything living or not into crystal. It isn’t written as a horror story – more as journalism. Despite the end-of-the-world scenario, the story is about people not saving the planet (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t get saved). Lord, I am sooooooo tired of SF/Fantasy novels that have to rely on saving the planet/species for all their alleged plot.

Ballard was that rare experimental writer (like Italo Calvino, for example) who could be read just for the story and not as an endurance test.

In branding/copyright move SciFi becomes SyFy (& I don’t care what they call it as long as I get to see the last Battlestar episode)

My old buddy David Gianatasio posted this over at AdFreak and I can’t improve on it, so I won’t try.

Sci Fi Channel’s rebranding as "Syfy" has created the worst cable-network name since Court TV became whatever the hell it’s been calling itself lately. (It’s TruTV, but I had to Google to make sure, and I cover this stuff for a living.) On the SyFy front, Mediaweek reports the predictable outrage among Tweeting genre geeks. One fan decries the name-changers as "marketroids." Well, that’s just playing on the stereotype of the robotic, data-driven marketer. The 40-year-old virgin who wrote that should move out his folks’ basement and get some new material. (So should I, come to think of it.) Maybe it’s all a big publicity ploy and Sci Fi really intends to keep its current moniker. Then again, marketroids aren’t usually programmed to take bold risks, so it’s doubtful. They claim "Syfy" is all about heightened brand awareness. Ditto the new tagline: "Imagine greater." When it comes to the new name, most of us wish the network had done just that.

The whole thing makes me feel sci-fried.

Far away and a long time before

Tomorrow it will be 39 years since the first man walked on the moon. On December 14th, it will be 36 years since the last one. This picture was taken on the next to last mission by Charles Duke:

“Told you so!” Cholly shouted with a seven-year-old’s self-righteous glee.

Isaac’s skepticism was near total. Not only was he nine and doubting everything, but he had never ever admitted his sister was right. Then there was the matter of the room they were in. It was huge and dark and at the back of an old building, with aisles and aisles of shelves that reached to the ceiling where the light bulbs gave off a dim, green light. They had been let into the room by a woman who seemed as old as the building. She had very little hair and wrinkles everywhere and had smiled at Cholly, but only lowered her eyelids and snorted when she met Isaac. In short, Isaac was scared. And the more scared he felt, the more he couldn’t possibly admit Cholly was right.

But there it was, in a permanent book. That made him even more nervous. Almost every book he’d ever seen was printed out then cycled when you were done with it. His parents only had one permanent at home. It was very old. Bible, they called it. Which was the story of God. Isaac wasn’t sure who God was, but knew God was big and dangerous. As much as possible he avoided being alone in the room with Bible. So books scared him, too. And he had been telling Cholly it was all impossible since yesterday. People gone to the moon. Not really.

Yesterday Cholly had come home and that was all she would talk about.

“I saw it. I saw the pictures.” She was whining because instead of wanting to go see it, he just said it never happened.

“I’d have known about it,” he said with a nine-year-old’s unshakable certainty.

“I’ll show you,” she said, making it sound like a threat.

But she saw she wasn’t getting anywhere and she ran to Da. Isaac followed behind, wanting to know. Da was in the kitchen, where Ma was cleaning up before going to work. The room and all the fixtures in it were light blue like every other room and building in the complex.

“Da, tell Isaac it’s true.”

“Cholly,” Ma had said, the one word warning her against running into the room so fast, talking so loud. She waved her hand at the video screen floating over the dinner table to lower the volume and lessen the din in the room. But it was a Council screen so you could never turn it all the way off or the volume all the way down.

“What’s true?” Da asked.

“About the men. On the moon.”

“You mean the man on the moon? He’s a big old guy.” Da always talked slowly, with funny voices and a lot of smiling. All the kids loved him, Cholly most of all. But he scared Isaac sometimes. It worried him that Da never talked like other grownups. Cholly couldn’t remember when Da didn’t talk the way he did now but Isaac did. It was years ago, before he went away to war. Which was something he was never supposed to talk about.

“No, no, nooo. About the people walked on the moon.”

“Oh, that,” he said, giving Ma that wink he thought the kids never saw.

“I’m serious, Da.”

“Where’d you hear something like that?” Ma asked with a hard tone and Cholly suddenly thought she’d done something wrong.

Read the rest of Fading Moon here.

Sometimes you win one

I’m not going to tell you whose short story won Atomjack magazine‘s writing contest. I’m not. Nope. Nope. Nope. The story is not called Fading Moon. Nope.

However I will tell you that:

  1. Someone is awfully pleased to finally have published and been paid for his Science Fiction.
  2. The story hasn’t been posted yet. Someone will tell you when it is.

A moment of silence for … Stanislaw Lem

CyberiadThe great Polish SF writer was 84. While he will probably be best known as the person who wrote Solaris, the basis for an interesting if very slow Russian SF movie and the recent Soderbergh & Clooney remake, I think of him as author of The Cyberiad — one of the funniest books I've ever read.