Year of Books in Review

02Jan10

This year, I read 106 books that I remembered to write down. It’s possible there are a couple more, especially since I started keeping track in late February. There were great books, good books, books I’ve already forgotten about and was surprised to find on the list, and books that I hated so much I could froth at the mouth for an hour ranting about them (and probably have). Since my original goal was to read 50 books, I’d call this a successful year. In the next year I’ve already stated that I want to read more of a variety in terms of genre. In terms of numbers, I’m going to move the bar down to 75, since I’m going to have a more intense schoolwork load and I need to write more often. Now I just have to figure out what my first book of 2010 is going to be. Below the cut are the stand-out books (for good or ill) of the year, and at the bottom is the full list of books I’ve read this year.

For some reason or another, the following books stuck out in my mind. There are plenty of good books that didn’t inspire a passionate response on this year’s list, and plenty of not-so-great books that did, one way or the other, so this isn’t necessarily a matter of quality… just a matter of having something interesting to say.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

I was suckered in by the pretty title, the pretty cover, and the cool idea: what would society look like so far after the zombie apocalypse that the time before is relegated to myth and religious teachings? Unfortunately, the protagonist had a case of the too-stupid-to-lives. If you’ve grown up around zombies and still have the insane urge to give them hugs (I mean it, she keeps swooning and thinking she wants to embrace them or reach out to them) you get left out in the woods and forgotten about or locked in a basement where you can’t cause anyone else harm. The main character was mopey and useless, but somehow everyone was in love with her, and the most interesting part of the story, the culture that had been built around the zombies, was wiped out about a third of the way in in favor of “teenagers wander through the woods with zombies at their backs.” A squandered premise. But I still may pick up the second book in the hopes that it gets better.

Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony by John Scalzi

OMW is thoroughly enjoyable, though very episodic; only at the very end did it seem to come together into a real story instead of a series of vignettes. It’s deliberately similar to Starship Troopers in a lot of ways, though without some of the bizarre philosophy that I found irritating in that classic; every so often the similarities got a wee bit too close and jarred me out of the story, but for the most part it just enhanced the experience. The second book is probably my favorite of these three; it came together as a cohesive whole in a way that OMW didn’t, though since the basic universe was already set up it didn’t have the same sense of romping around in speculation which made OMW so delightful. Unfortunately, The Last Colony had neither of these strengths. Despite some great characters, the story fell flat. It spends the first 3/4 being about establishing a colony without support on a dangerous world, putting one metaphorical gun on the mantle after the other, and then spends the last quarter being about interstellar politics and warfare, and all those damn guns stay unfired. I’ve been told that Zoe’s Tale, the fourth book, deals with a lot of the elements that were dropped and supplies the “heart” that I felt was missing, but after such a disappointing read I haven’t gotten around to picking it up.

The Outback Stars and The Stars Down Under by Sandra McDonald

I just realized that a lot of these notable books are notable because the first book(s) wowed and later books splatted. This is certainly the case with McDonald’s two–it’s a trilogy, but I have no desire to pick up the third, so I’ll only discuss the first two. The Outback Stars was a great mix of sort-of-military sf, romance, and a touch of mysticism that made it all the more intriguing. I loved it, but I wouldn’t have pulled it out for discussion if not for the second book. The Stars Down Under quickly undermines the relationship built in the first book, and then piles on the mysticism until the entire book is drowning in it. The epilogue (maybe it was a preview of the next book, I can’t remember) sealed the deal in terms of me not being the least bit interested in continuing the story. A big disappointment.

Benighted by Kit Whitfield

Most of the world’s population are werewolves; a rare few “barebacks” who don’t change with the full moon are in charge of keeping the peace. This was a fascinating read, and ended up being more about privilege, oppression, and the abuses of power rather than your typical urban fantasy romp. Definitely a book I want to re-read at some point. Although I admit some of the mid-book depression/moping got to be too much.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Please note that I spoil the ending in this rant, though I won’t name names. My grandfather and apparently most of the western world loved this book. I wanted to like it. I did like it, for the first half. But then a mystery that was all about relationships, history, and community turned out just to be about sexual sadism. I’ve heard a couple people talk about how Larsson was commenting on cruelty toward women (the original title is “Men who Hate Women”), but I found it no different than the slews of rape-and-torture thrillers already on the shelf, and no less exploitive. I’m sure that whipping out a scene of horrific sadism after a couple hundred pages of psychological exploration and “civilized” mystery was intentional, but it felt like a betrayal and was entirely unwelcome. It also robbed the mystery of any nuance. Nope, no family politics, just a serial killer.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

I read this book on the basis of a review I stumbled across rather randomly while looking for something else. It was probably one of my favorites of the year. The language is beautiful once you fall into its rhythms, and the story is both brutal and, at times, oddly romantic and tender. Its portrait of plantation life neither demonizes nor pardons anyone; every character, whether slave or owner, is a fleshed-out human being, with all the messy tangle of good and evil and in-between that entails. Anyone with a strong stomach should read this book (not gross, just difficult to read).

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

This book got a fair amount of buzz, but none of it was deserved, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a rather mopey (can you tell that annoys me?) tale of a girl with a perfect life who gets in a car accident and loses her family. She herself is in a coma, but ghosting around, making the choice of whether to stay or go (ie, die). Most of the book is flashbacks to earlier times in her life as she explains how her perfect life got so perfect. There is very little conflict, although some nice little interactions. The present-day narrative is more interesting, though since the MC is in a coma it’s everyone else doing the action. Without the flashbacks, this would probably have been a long short story, and an interesting one; with them, it was blessedly short but bereft of conflict or meaning. It only took me three hours to read, but I’d like those three melodramatic hours back, please.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee

I’m with [info]calico_reaction when she says that she enjoyed this book so much she’s a bit scared to re-read it. I picked it up based on her review ages ago, and when I finally got around to it I couldn’t put it down. It’s great adventure science fiction. It didn’t grapple with huge real-world issues, but not everything has to. God knows my fiction doesn’t.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

There’s a reason this book is so popular. It’s about kids killing each other, and thus sure to shock certain segments of the population who think children shouldn’t read about such things. It’s depressing but always exciting. Sadly, the second book didn’t live up to expectations in a lot of ways; it mostly repeats the formula of the first one and leaves the most interesting action off-stage and unmentioned until the very end. But the first one is excellent.

Code of Conduct by Kristine Smith

I picked this book up blind at a used book store for $2. I paid too much. The book is a mess. Some of the set-up is interesting, and the character is kind of cool, but more of it was incomprehensible or just annoying. Ugh. I can’t even remember enough of the story to give you specifics.

Moonshine by Rob Thurman

Another second book that didn’t live up to the first. Maybe we should make a law that successful first books don’t get sequels. I enjoyed the first book in this series, Night Life, but maybe that was because the first-person narrator was possessed for most of it (and thus narrating from the perspective of the possessing entity). There are only so many times I can stand reading about how the MC is a loner and doesn’t have friends but now he does but he doesn’t know how to handle it because he’s a loner and he needs to learn to trust but he shouldn’t because he’ll put them in danger and he’s just learning to care for them because he’s a loner that doesn’t have friends…… yeah. Thurman reiterated information every time the subject came up, and when I notice these things you have a problem. I’m normally a careless reader thankful for the reminder, but this was just too much. And every single piece of information came with bonus! flashbacks. A lot of scenes were told in weird chronological order, flashing back and forth for dramatic effect, muddling the story. Overall, bla. I might pick up more of Thurman’s work from the library if I’m really curious, but otherwise I’m passing on the rest of these books.

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman

A bizarre, depressing book, and I mean that in a good way. The style takes some getting used to, with its random second-person interludes by the omniscient narrators (who are they? no idea, really), the characters are almost uniformly unpleasant, and the main character is a fifteen-year-old prostitute. What’s not to love? I didn’t know anything about the cholera epidemic of the 1830s until reading this, although I did know a bit about doctors, body-snatching, and Burke. I found the historical detail fascinating. Most appealing, though, is the way that Holman sets her characters on trajectories that have an excruciating sense of inevitability, and employs the capricious nature of disease and similarly capricious voice of the narrators to create a sense of the universe meting out justice and chaos.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

The Left Hand of Darkness I read as a classic, which means I appreciated it more on the basis of its contribution to the genre than as a story in its own right. It was very slow, with many pauses for old stories and fables. Its strength is in its ideas and speculation, not in its storytelling, so while I’m glad I read it it’s not really my cup of tea. Ammonite clearly owes a great debt to Le Guin. There are obvious parallels in the exploration of gender, the main character (an anthropologist exploring an alien planet’s culture), and even some of the plot structure (lots of time spent surviving out in a harsh winter climate). It definitely has a more modern feel to it, though, and of the two I would definitely say I enjoyed Ammonite more. Another one of those rare book I may reread.

You may notice that none of these books are non-fiction. I actually do have a separate list of stand-out nonfiction, but I think I’m just going to list my favorites without commentary. I approach nonfiction much differently, and I generally don’t analyze when I’m done. Oddly, nonfiction is often my escapist genre, since I read it simply for pleasure, whereas I’m always tuned into craft issues when I’m reading fiction. So here are my favorite non-fic books of the year, in no particular order:

Battle, John Lynn
Our Inner Ape, Franz De Waal
Rare Earth, Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee
Persian Fire, Tom Holland
Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku

FULL LIST

1. Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
2. Radical Evolution – Joel Garreau
3. Our Inner Ape – Franz De Waal
4. The Outback Stars – Sandra McDonald
5. Shadowbridge – Gregory Frost
6. Ink Exchange – Melissa Marr
7. Broken Angels – Richard K Morgan
8. Emissaries From the Dead – Adam-troy Castro
9. Night Life – Rob Thurman
10. Ysabel – Guy Gavriel Kay
11. The Forest of Hands and Teeth – Carrie Ryan
12. Prior Bad Acts – Tami Hoag
13. Ghost Brigades – Scalzi
14. The Kill – Allison Brennan
15. Benighted – Kit Whitfield
16. Magic Strikes – Ilona Andrews
17. A Grave Talent – Laurie King
18. Bone Crossed – Patricia Briggs
19. One For Sorrow – Christopher Barzak
20. Night Life – Caitlin Kittredge
21. Blue Diablo – Ann Aguirre
22. On Killing – Grossman
23. Battle – John A Lynn
24. Sunset Express – Robert Crais
25. The Last Colony – Scalzi
26. The Book of Night Women – Marlon James
27. The Warriors – J Glenn Gray
28. Coraline – Neil Gaiman
29. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
30. Wake – Lisa McMann
31. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
32. Without a Net – Michelle Kennedy
33. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K LeGuin
34. Spook – Mary Roach
35. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
36. The Dead and the Gone – Susan Beth Pfeffer
37. Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane
38. Fade – Lisa McMann
39. Uninvited – Amanda Marrone
40. Rare Earth -Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee
41. Persian Fire – Tom Holland
42. Confessions of an Alien Hunter – Seth Shostak
43. Magic to the Bone – Devon Monk
44. Warchild – Karin Lowachee
45. The Greek Way – Edith Hamilton
46. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
47. The Strain – Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
48. Shanghaied – Eric Stone
49. Gone, Baby, Gone – Dennis Lehane
50. First Drop – Zoe Sharp
51. The Stars Down Under – Sandra McDonald
52. The Third Claw of God – Adam-Troy Castro
53. Soldier, Ask Not – Gordon R Dickson
54. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
55. Spiral Hunt – Margaret Ronald
56. Fragile Eternity – Melissa Marr
57. The Electric Church – Jeff Somers
58. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Steig Larsson
59. Idoru – William Gibson
60. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold
61. A Canticle for Liebowitz – Walter M Miller Jr
62. Ghost Ocean – S M Peters
63. If I Stay – Gayle Forman
64. Burndive – Karin Lowachee
65. The Vor Game – Lois McMaster Bujold
66. In Silent Graves – Gary Braunbeck
67. The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde
68. The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
69. Wander Lust – Ann Aguirre
70. Trading in Danger – Elizabeth Moon
71. Wintergirls – Laurie Halse Anderson
72. The Poet – Michael Connelly
73. One For the Money – Janet Evanovich
74. Unclean Spirits – MLM Hanover
75. Magic Study – Maria Snyder
76. Indemnity Only – Sara Paretsky
77. On the Edge – Ilona Andrews
78. Shards of Honor – Lois McMaster Bujold
79. Dead Beat – Val McDermid
80. Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku
81. Pretties – Scott Westerfeld
82. Down To the Bone – Mayra Lazara Dole
83. Marque and Reprisal – Elizabeth Moon
84. Code of Conduct – Kristine Smith
85. Methland – Nick Reding
86. Ship of Fools – Richard Paul Russo
87. Black Echo – Michael Connelly
88. The Dress Lodger – Sheri Holman
89. Beggars in Spain – Nancy Kress
90. Graceling – Kristin Cashore
91. The Stepsister Scheme – Jim C Hines
92. Liar – Justine Larbalestier
93. Graffiti Girl – Kelly Parra
94. Ammonite – Nicola Griffith
95. Marcelo in the Real World – Francisco Stork
96. Blood Lines – Tanya Huff
97. Flashforward – Robert Sawyer
98. Bloody Jack – L A Meyer
99. Moonshine – Rob Thurman
100. Nobody’s Princess – Esthner Friesner
101. The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary Pearson
102. The House at Riverton – Kate Morton
103. Map of Ireland – Stephanie Grant
104. Sharp Teeth – Toby Barlow
105. Talking to the Dead – Bonnie Grove
106. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins*

*not actually the last book I read, but apparently I forgot to add it

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