Thursday, January 01, 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

Every book pundit and reviewer has to declare a list of books at the end of a year, and this is mine. 2014's list is the ninth time; this has been an annual feature of Antick Musings since the beginning. (Those earlier lists: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

My introductions to these lists have gotten longer and more Byzantine over the years, which is my general tendency anyway. But I do want to fight that, so I will aim for concision here.

The Rules:

  1. My list is finalized on the last day of the year, so it includes all my reading for the year.
  2. This is a list of "favorites," not "bests."
  3. I try to favor books from this year.
  4. My reading includes many genres and formats, and the list mixes that all together.
  5. I pick a favorite for each month, to make a top twelve.
  6. And each month also gets a paragraph about other notable books.

The Field:

I read 383 books in 2014, more than double the standard for the past three years. (2013: 156; 2012: 158; 2011: 146) That brought me back in line with the average for the prior three decades, so maybe it was doing the other blog (Editorial Explanations) that stole my reading time and energy.

(Other theories: working outside fiction publishing, my big flood in 2011 that destroyed 10k books, sunspots, general ennui, or that it's 2014 that's the real anomaly.)

This was a Book-A-Day year, so it's even more comics-heavy than usual. And the prose books were often chosen because they were short and could be read quickly. That's definitely a bias, but I don't think being biased in favor of entertaining books that go quickly is anything to apologize for.

So here's what I read in 2014 that feels worth calling out at the end of that year: the most interesting and the books that stuck in the mind, the quirky and the bizarre and the wonderful and the impressive.


Not eligible under my usual rules is Darrell Huff's How to Lie With Statistics: not only did I read it for the second time, but the book itself is from 1954. But it's a great book -- short, punchy, smart, filled with sneaky tricks everyone should know -- and so I'll mention it here for the benefit of anyone who hasn't read it yet. Julian Barnes brought his typically elliptical style to Levels of Live, a memoir occasioned by the death of his wife. (Although the book itself is more about ballooning than grief directly.) And I discovered Kyoko Okazaki, a great female manga-ka before a horrible accident nearly twenty years ago, with her fearless and era-defining Pink.

But the book of the month has to be Neil Gaiman's slim new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a masterclass in what writing can do and why we read fantasy.


I read two excellent fantasy novels from series this month: one was Jonathan Stroud's The Screaming Staircase, ostensibly for teenagers and beginning the story of a world where the dead walk and only young people can see and stop them. The other was Scott Lynch's long-awaited The Republic of Thieves, which was amiably lower-key than the first two books in his Gentleman Bastards series and made me wish he could produce a book like that every year. Gene Luen Yang also came back after what felt like a long hiatus since American Born Chinese -- though he had been working steadily, with various projects coming out since then -- to produce a magnificent diptych of graphic novels in the interwoven Boxers and Saints.

And the best thing I read in February was a graphic novel from France, the devastating and cruel Beautiful Darkness, written by Fabien Vehlmann and drawn by the husband-and-wife team billed as Kerascoet. 


After Beautiful Darkness, I wanted more Vehlmann, and I found another excellent book he wrote, The Last Days of an Immortal, that was illustrated by Gwen De Bonneval -- this was chilly in a different way, smart SF in the vein of classic Silverberg or Knight. Marie Rutkowski's The Winner's Curse was a smart novel -- officially for teens -- about war and slavery and conquest and ownership. Takashi Murakami's Stargazing Dog chooses a uniquely oblique angle to tell a tragedy, and turns it into something more celebratory, though still sad.

The book of the month was Sunny, Vol. 1, the first in a series -- it can stand in for all of them to date -- by Taiyo Matsumoto about the inhabitants of a group home for unwanted kids in a minor Japanese town in the 1970s. The characters are intensely imagined, and their world is entirely real.


The most disappointing book of April was The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Tom Rachman's dull and muted follow-up to his magnificent first novel The Imperfectionists. Not exactly disappointing but reveling in frustrating all expectations and plans was The Incrementalists, a SF novel by Steven Brust and Skyler White that postulates a secret society that controls the world and then runs them around suburban Las Vegas and memory palaces to tell a ground-level story of people and relationships. Surprising and lovely and equally grounded in real people was La Quinta Camera, the story of a group apartment in an Italian city by the Japanese creator Natsume Ono.

And the book I loved the most in April was the first collection of an ongoing comics series by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick. Sexy without being pandering, focused on a woman without being heavy-handed, this is fun and funny and silly and loving and passionate and gorgeous.


I had a slight disappointment this month as well: Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out, billed as the true story of a serial con man and Kirn's tangled relations with that man. But it turned out to be a well-written story about how appalled Walter Kirn was that Walter Kirn was taken in by a con man -- how could he, Walter Kirn, be so blind! (There was possibly just a bit too much Walter Kirn in it.) Lewis Trondheim began a new epic fantasy-tinged graphic novel series with the intriguing Ralph Zaham,Vol. 1.

And the best book of the month, by far, was the second graphic novel by cousins Mariko Tamaki (script) and Jillian Tamaki (art), This One Summer. Like their first book, Skim, it's about girls growing up and being thrown into situations they don't understand, but the girls in This One Summer are younger and their milieu more distinct and interesting. The art is lovely, the words are precise and true, and the story resonates strongly.


Most of the best stuff I read in June was old and not really eligible for this list, unfortunately. I finally got around to Nicholson Baker's aggressively minimalist first two novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature -- about riding up an escalator and feeding a baby, respectively. And I also read the first collection of John Allison's great current webcomic, Bad Machinery, Vol. 1: The Case of the Team Spirit, which collects a story from 2011. (Later in the year, I read the next two collections of Allison's strip, which are equally as good but which I won't bother to mention separately.)

But, looking back, the most impressive and interesting book of the month was Box Brown's work of love and obsession, Andre the Giant: a graphic novel biography of the literally larger-than-life wrestler and actor. Brown did more research than most prose biographers, and is excellent at teasing out all of the different levels of presentation and reality in Andre's life, particularly the always-in-character wrestling world.


On the old and reprinted front, I have to first mention Bill Mauldin's magnificent achievement, Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, which collected all of his wartime strips, and which I read again this year. There was also the first collection of a great comics series from thirty years ago in Miracleman, Book 1: A Dream of Flying, by a deeply shy Alan Moore, Garry Leach, and Alan Davis. Rutu Modan's The Property was a great 2013 graphic novel -- about history and regret and desire and national character -- that I got to a year late. I was also slightly late getting to the very popular and equally artistically successful Saga series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I saw a number of books by the Japanese manga-ka Moyoco Anno over the past year or so, all of which were smart and accomplished in very different ways, but the most impressive was the feminist/body-image tale of In Clothes Called Fat.

And the best book of the month has already turned up on a lot of other people's lists: the comics memoir of longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, about the decline and fall of her aged parents. It's just as funny and touching as everyone says it is.


Pat Grant's graphic novel Blue, a parable about immigrants and strangeness from an Australian perspective, came out of nowhere for me, but it was deep and meaningful and full of heart. Gabrielle Bell collected five years of self-laceratingly funny diary comics in The Voyeurs. Jeff Smith's second big graphic novel was collected all in one volume as RASL: it's very different from Bone, a crosstime thriller with strong noir elements and an appealing antihero at its core. Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, with massive aid and support from IDW, gave us the magnificent and magisterial What Fools These Mortals Be!, a comprehensive look at the cartoons of the hugely influential late-19th century satire magazine Puck. And Michel Rabagliati's strong graphic novel Paul Joins the Scouts almost took the title this month -- it was easily the most emotionally powerful book I read that month.

But Rabagliati was beaten out by a retrospective of the work of National Lampoon cartoonist Charles Rodrigues, who never saw an emotional situation he couldn't satirize and ruthlessly mock. Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend collects all of his major story sequences from NatLamp from bizarre beginnings to metafictional ends, in all of their sick splendor.


This was another month with a lot of great new graphic novels: Raina Telgemeier's Sisters, a semi-sequel to her great memoir comic Smile. Farel Dalrymple's weird and stuffed-with-wonders The Wrenchies. Lucy Knisley's thoughtful and searching An Age of License. I was also really impressed with some old comics, too: Thirteen "Going on Eighteen" collected a minor '60s teen comic mostly by John Stanley, which was a riot of hilarious action and smart characterization. On the prose side, Jasper Fforde had a very impressive third book in his young adult "Chronicles of Kazaam" series with The Eye of Zoltar, and Michael Lewis once again proved he's a facile, deeply entertaining writer with an unfortunate tropism towards hacking out apologetics for whoever he talked to last with Flash Boys.

The book of the month was almost Danica Novgorodoff's The Undertaking of Lily Chen, which was not just brilliant on its own but a thrilling leap above her previous (already pretty good) books. But even better was Ray Fawkes tour de force The People Inside, which took the idea of his previous tour de force (One Soul) and upped the ante and the difficulty -- and then topped his previous achievement, brilliantly.


Bryan Lee O'Malley followed up his Scott Pilgrim series with an excellent standalone, Seconds, all about choices and mistakes and second chances. (There's something a bit Gaiman-esque about it, actually.) Howl: The Graphic Novel is a few years old, but I only found it this year: it spun off the recent movie, and has cartoonist Eric Drooker drawing riffs on the Allen Ginsberg poem.

Best of the month is a book of manga short stories from a creator I'd never heard of and a new press: Sorako by Takayuki Fujimura via Gen Manga. The stories are mostly about aimless young women, and they're as resonant and thoughtful as the similar work of Adrian Tomine or Daniel Clowes.


Another stack of excellent good comics, as I saw the end of the year approaching and started trying to gather all of the good stuff with both hands: Grandville Noel, the fourth in Bryan Talbot's alternate-history anthropomorphic detective series, which works vastly better than such a stew of elements should. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, the devastating almost-true story from Shigeru Mizuki about the death of a battalion of Japanese soldiers in WWII. The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, not quite comics but with a powerful story by Neil Gaiman and darkly evocative art by Eddie Campbell. Strong Female Protagonist, Vol. 1, the first collection of Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag's feminist, post-revisionist superhero webcomic. In entirely another vein, The Getaway Car was a great collection of the random non-fiction of the late mystery grandmaster Donald E. Westlake.

The book of the month was Henni by Miss Lasko-Gross, a parable-esque graphic novel about women and men, religion and politics, hope and fear.


In the last month of the year, I got to another stack of well-reviewed stuff that I liked a lot as well: Through the Woods, collecting Emily Carroll's fairy-tale-esque stories of terror and creepiness from her website and other places. Jane, the Fox & Me, a story of growing up lonely and bullied but finding ways to get through it, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, a fabulistic story about conformity and messiness by Stephen Collins. Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, a sharp-eyed look behind the scenes of the diplomatic apparatus at the moment it was falling apart, by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain. The Motherless Oven, Rob Davis's precisely surreal story of growing up in a weird, fatalistic world.

Once again, there were two graphic novels fighting it out for the top slot. Only just missing was Beauty, a precise and devastating story about the male gaze, women's power, palace intrigues, and the corrosiveness of desire, written by Hubert and drawn by Kerascoet (of Beautiful Darkness fame). But even more impressive, and a vastly bigger leap forward in comics, was Richard McGuire's amazing Here, the long-gestating expansion of his famous ground-breaking story of the same name.

And then, to pull those top choices all together into a single list:

2014's Top Twelve

Every year when I'm working on this, I'm reminded of the main reason I do this by month. It's both an easier and harder choice by month, since there are fewer books to look it -- so it's easier to focus, but it's also easy to have two books that are both very good. But, when I do it by month, I get a more idiosyncratic list, full of things that I really liked, and not just that I think are worthy. If I did a traditional "Top 10" and looked at the whole year, I'm sure I wouldn't have included Box Brown or Fraction and Zdarsky -- and the list as a whole would have been duller and more similar to everyone else's.

So my first advice is to read the books I listed above, the short list and the long: they're all worth the time and thought. And my second advice is to try to do things a little differently than other people -- make your lists and choose your options and look at things more like yourself and less like everyone else.

Finally, all of these books were all, obviously, from my Book-A-Day project, so also look for the Book-A-Day postmortem, coming later today. That will have a geekier poke at numbers of books and breakdowns by genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment