Thursday, January 01, 2009

My Favorite Books of the Year: 2008

This is the fourth time that I'm doing this -- 2005, 2006, 2007 -- which officially makes it a Tradition. Many years from now, the tribe descended from me will honor the Year-End Book List with a festival of drinking, carousing, and general merry-making, but, for now, there is only The Making of the List.

But there must also be the Disclaimers Three:

Disclaimer the First: I say "favorite," and I mean "favorite." I never read enough to feel comfortable calling anything "best." I do think my opinion is better than most, but, still, it's only one opinion.

Disclaimer the Second: I wait to do this list until the last day of the old year -- unlike some list-makers -- because there's always the chance that the book I'm reading on December 31st will be one of the best of the year. But I only cast very mild aspersions on those who do otherwise.

Disclaimer the Third: My "top ten" list contains one book for each month of the year, with runners-up as required. I've been doing it that way for three years, so I see no reason to stop now. But it does make for an odd list, I'll admit.

Disclaimer the Third-and-a-half: I read many different things -- graphic novels, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, general non-fiction -- and I consider them all together when doing this list. For me, a book is a book is a book, and I'm making a list of the ones I thought were best in the past year. So my list is quite idiosyncratic; I try to keep the main slots to actual new books, but old things I've read for the first time do tend to sneak in as runners-up. After three thousand or so years of civilization, the best books aren't necessarily those that came out this year.

And so into the list...

January: Stewart O'Nan's amazing The Speed Queen (originally published in 1997) was far and away the best thing I read this month. Steve Martin's short but engrossing Born Standing Up was also excellent: it's basically a history of his stand-up act, and a clear-eyed look at what it means to want to entertain people that way. I also liked Jonathan Barnes's very entertaining debut novel The Somnambulist, but found it slightly thin in the end. And there was also Tom Lutz's fine history of loafing, Doing Nothing, which ended up just a bit (appropriately) unfocused.

February: Sue Grafton's quiet and mildly experimental mystery T Is For Trespass -- with no murder and large sections from the point of view of the villain -- showed that she's not about to rest on her laurels. Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse One was a good anthology of new SFF work unfortunately overshadowed by a petty, silly Internet controversy. I liked Charlie Huston's second "Joe Pitt Casefile," No Dominion, with its aggressively non-romantic view of vampires. I also caught up with Bryan Talbot's meta-graphic novel Alice in Sunderland from the previous year -- a book which is either fictional..or it isn't. (Or possibly both.) And, despite the obvious signs of joinery, the best book I read in February was Michael Swanwick's faerie fix-up The Dragons of Babel.

March: Iain M. Bank's new Culture novel, Matter had good parts, but didn't cohere as it might have. I was pleasantly happy to discover Lewis Trondheim's excellently matter-of-fact diary comics, Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella. I also saw Walter Jon Williams's staving-off-the-Singularity novel Implied Spaces, which was nice but dribbled away SFnal energy in its thriller plot. Tim Sievert's deeply symbolic -- a bit too much so -- graphic novel That Salty Air didn't quite work as it should have, but it marks him as a talent to watch. But the greatest thing I saw was Cyril Pedrosa's amazing, breath-taking Three Shadows.

April: Greg Keyes's The Born Queen excited me a lot at the time, but in retrospect I think Keyes did rush the ending, and let both the escalation of power and the push for a happy ending get away from him. It's still a fine series, but it doesn't end quite as well as it began. Michel Rabagliati's latest gem of semi-autobiographical comics, Paul Goes Fishing was lovely and moving. Paul Melko's Singularity's Ring was a very assured first novel, with an intriguing view of a gestalt personality. Jim Steinmeyer's entertaining biography, Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural placed a great idiosyncratic talent in his context. Cory Doctorow's deliberately rabble-rousing -- and not balanced at all -- novel for teenagers Little Brother was impressive, but slightly too much to the agitprop side for me. Frederik Peeters's Blue Pills was a fine semi-autobiographical GN. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best, was a slight disappointment, but did show Campbell in full high-entertainment mode. Jack O'Connell's interesting but flawed The Resurrectionist had a comics connection as well: large sections of the narrative were supposedly descriptions of comics from its fictional world. And the most impressive book was another volume of the brutally powerful comics of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Good-Bye.

May: Carrie Vaughn's Kitty and the Silver Bullet continued one of the most surprisingly law-abiding (and concerned with the thorny problems of the real world) of the current crop of tough-chick contemporary fantasy. Mary Roach had an entertaining look at the science of sex with Bonk. Jamie Hernandez had a fine new collection of "Love & Rockets" stories, The Education of Hopey Glass. And one of the least likely ideas imaginable came out very well in Toby Barlow's epic poem of werewolves in LA, Sharp Teeth.

June: Michael Chabon's "Odds and Sods" collection, Maps and Legends wasn't completely consistent, but offered a lot of thoughtful ruminations on his own life and popular culture. Steven Erikson's Reaper's Gale continued the biggest, most decadent most self-consciously post-everything epic fantasy series available. David J. Schwartz's decent but minor Superpowers brought the modern just-folks superhero to prose. But I think the best book I read was Rob Walker's examination of modern consumer behavior, Buying In.

July: I enjoyed Charles Stross's Saturn's Children, in which the author sets out to write a Heinlein pastiche, travels mostly through John Varley territory, and ends by confirming that all of his books share a very depressive Weltanschauung. And I need to mention John Varley's Rolling Thunder, just to again publicly note that he can do much, much better than this, and hope that he will the next time out. John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale was also disappointing -- the voice was good, but the plot was half-baked (and the baked half was the part we'd already seen in The Last Colony). Nate Powell's dark and ominous Swallow Me Whole was a great graphic novel, and might have been my favorite in another month. But I read it soon after Joshua W. Cotter's fantastic tale of boys growing up, Skyscrapers of the Midwest, which took the crown.

August: I caught up with Paul Collins's authoritative afterlife biography of Thomas Paine, The Trouble With Tom (from 2005). Seiichi Hayashi's experimental early-'70s manga, Red Colored Elegy, was finally available in English. Janet Chui and Jason Eric Lundberg edited A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, which I didn't love as much as I hoped but which is still a great entry in the fake-nonfiction-book area. And Scott McCloud's great comics series Zot! was finally collected for a mass audience as the nearly complete Zot! 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection.

September: Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, Vol. 1 collected the early, vital issues of the series, along with a few issues that don't look quite as vital now. Ian Frazier's new collection of humorous essays, Lamentations of the Father, managed to overcome an eye-destroying cover. Rick Geary's The Lindbergh Child saw him bring his careful mastery of historical non-fiction comics to a new century. The Scrambled Ink comics collection was remarkably good, despite a drab package. Lawrence Block's Hit and Run saw him continue the story of Keller, a career hitman who's a full and real character while avoiding every "hitman with a conscience" cliche. Holly Black and Ted Naifeh brought the first in a new contemporary fantasy graphic novel series for teens with The Good Neighbors, Vol. 1: Kin. William Messner-Loebs's great historical comic Journey finally got collected, with the big Journey, Vol. 1. And Chris Blain's Gus and His Gang was a swell Western comic from France, of all places. And one of the few best-of-year books I'll have in common with those big newspapers and magazines is Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of: where he tackled fear of death, and the question of God, head-on with wit and tact.

October: Richard Stark's Dirty Money finished up his current trilogy with energy and bloody-mindedness to spare. Garfield Minus Garfield, by Jim Davis and Dan Walsh, brought the web hit into print and showed that even something as banal and bland as the Garfield comic strip can be made into art. Anne Ishii translated and Chip Kidd edited Bat-Manga!, which has problems of scope and presentation, but shows a fascinating sidelight to US and Japanese comics. Matthew Stover came back to original fiction after a few years in the licensed-character mines with the strong (but not exactly complete) Caine Black Knife.

November: Terry Pratchett's first standalone novel in a few decades was Nation, a young adult story that was a bit didactic, and alternate-historical for no obvious reason, but also had all of his usual (very strong) virtues of story, characterization, and just pure heart. Appollo and Lewis Trondheim had a fine historical story of retired pirates and escaped slaves with Bourbon Island: 1730. Best was a book that surprised me: I'd only partly liked the first two annual editions of Best American Comics, and have never quite warmed to Lynda Barry's own comics work. But when she guest-edited Best American Comics: 2008, she put together an amazing array of great comics -- and provided a great introduction-in-comics-form that makes me want to dive deeper into her own comics.

December: Gilbert Hernandez's standalone graphic novel Speak of the Devil had a metafictional connection to his usual fictional world, but it was also a great introduction to his talents for new readers. Gene Wolfe's An Evil Guest saw him write a very believable female main character, but the plot and setting were somewhat more nebulous. Ivan Brunetti's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories, Vol. 2 contained multitudes, but came down strongly at the very artsy, picture-pane side of the comics field. James Bamford's The Shadow Factory updated his classic histories of the super-secretive National Security Agency to an era when the entire government took its playbook from the NSA. Sarah Lyall's The Anglo Files was a tremendously entertaining look at England and the English from a woman who had the misfortune, or good fortune, to marry a particularly choice specimen. And Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button was a massive graphic novel with dazzingly inventive storytelling about one family reunited for a week to see their parents divorce after forty years of marriage.

And so my Top Ten Twelve of 2008 are:
  • Stewart O'Nan, The Speed Queen
  • Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel
  • Cyril Pedrosa, Three Shadows
  • Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Good-Bye
  • Toby Barlow, Sharp Teeth
  • Rob Walker, Buying In
  • Joshua W. Cotter, Skyscrapers of the Midwest
  • Scott McCloud, Zot! 1987-1991
  • Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of
  • Matthew Stover, Caine Black Knife
  • Lynda Barry, editor, Best American Comics: 2008
  • Dash Shaw, Bottomless Belly Button
Looking back at the year that was, I seem to have spent an awfully long time reading and thinking about mediocre manga volumes; I may need to adjust my reading for 2009. In any case -- those are some great books that I read last year, if you haven't tried some of them, please think about picking up one or two.

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