Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My Favorite Books of the Year

Unlike everyone else, I always wait until the new year to post my favorite books of the previous year -- in part because I'm a stickler for minor points of protocol, but also in part because the book I'm reading on December 31st just might be one of the best of the year.

I've now done this three times -- once was coincidence, twice was happenstance, so this time it must be enemy action. As before, I'm listing the favorite books I read each month individually, with runners-up as necessary.

And, as before, I don't divide books into categories. I pit mysteries against graphic novels against non-fiction against SF. Good is good, and I'm not going to do an artificial "this is the best of this sub-set of the books I read" list. The best are the best, and they never all fall into any one pigeonhole. (I also don't hold myself to only new books; any book I've never read before was new to me, so I compare them all to each other.)

January: I read three excellent short story collections -- Alastair Reynolds's Zima Blue and Other Stories and Galactic North and Kage Baker's Dark Mondays -- plus Kim Deitch's Shadowland. But the best thing I read was Yoshihiro Tatsumi's amazing Abandon the Old in Tokyo, manga stories originally published in 1970. (Drawn & Quarterly, isn't it about time for another Tatsumi collection?)

February: The New Space Opera (edited by Dozois & Strahan) had good points, but also (for my taste) some bad ones as well, including an over-long, massively over-reaching Dan Simmons story. Wizards (edited by Dann and Dozois) was more consistent, but also not a pure knockout. Martin Amis's House of Meetings was a return to form, and a powerful novel. And I'll always have a soft spot for Strahan's Best Short Novels: 2007 -- we made it four years, Jonathan! That's something to be proud of, and those were some damn good stories. But the book of the month was Calvin Trillin's perfect, heartbreaking About Alice.

March: I finally got to Donald Westlake's hard-to-find novel Adios, Scheherezade, but didn't love it as much as I'd hoped. Otherwise, there were some good books -- like Scalzi's The Android's Dream and Richard Sala's The Grave Robber's Daughter -- but fewer great ones. The book of the month was Kage Baker's The Sons of Heaven, which wrapped up her huge "Company" saga with more energy and momentum than I'd realized she was capable of; she dragged entirely new virtues out of her storehouse for this book to add to her already impressive talents.

April: I liked several novels this month -- Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine, John Scalzi's The Last Colony, Jasper Fforde's First Among Sequels, Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies -- but the best book of the month was nonfiction: Barry Malzberg's argument-starting, fascinating, grumpy and perfectly opinionated Breakfast in the Ruins. If SF is dead, at least we have Malzberg to show us its shattered glories.

May: Christopher Buckley's Boomsday was an excellent near-future satire, until the ending collapsed. And Kim Deitch's Alias the Cat and Daniel Pinkwater's The Neddiad saw very different creators, working in very different forms, doing the same sort of things they'd done many times before, but still doing it with verve and passion. The book of the month, though, took most of my month: Steven Erikson's The Bonehunters.

June: Roger Ebert's Your Movie Sucks is a book of film criticism for everyone, full of movies we all know about and love to see skewered. Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings saw him stretch his west-coast Asian-American ennui into a full-length graphic novel for the first time -- and do it very well. Other excellent comics were Andy Hartzell's wordless Fox Bunny Funny and Osamu Tezuka's Ode to Kirihito. Haruki Murakami's After Dark stuck several first-class stories at the end of a collection of mostly secondary work. Charles Stross sent an IM from tomorrow and called it Halting State, deciding to write it in second person just to make it harder for himself and more immediate for us. And above them all was Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, diving straight into the culture wars but making them utterly personal and concrete.

July: Max Barry's Company started very strong but lost momentum with its big reveal. Michael Swanwick collected his latest batch of first-rate stories in The Dog Said Bow-Wow. Larry Gonick finally had a new entry in his essential set of histories with The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part I. And the best book of the month was Gene Wolfe's twisty, terse, tricksy Pirate Freedom, proof once again that he's still the master of leading his readers down paths both false and true.

August: I spent most of this month reading Loren Estleman mysteries, on a lark -- the best of them was Sinister Heights, and all of them were pretty darn good. I was also generally impressed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; it wasn't perfect by a long shot, but there are so many ways to go wrong at the end of a series that big, and Rowling avoided them all to stick the landing. But the books of the month are Lat's cartoon memoirs of his childhood and young adulthood in Malaysia, Kampung Boy and Town Boy.

September: Simon Rich's essay collection Ant Farm was as funny as anything I read this year. Jo Walton's Ha'penny continued and deepened the world of Farthing; her plotting made me angry and unhappy with humanity, but I think not precisely for the reasons she wanted. Terry Pratchett's Making Money is one of the very best in a long-running series of very consistently excellent novels; his secondary creation is now as deep and real as the primary one, and as good a vehicle for social satire as anyone has ever invented. And the book of this month was Joshua Ferris's amazing Then We Came to the End, the best book about American office life -- or life in general -- in many years.

October: Matt Kindt's Super Spy and Kevin Huizenga's Curses were both excellent, thoughtful comics, in two very different idioms. Michel Rabagliati's Paul Has a Summer Job was even better than that. Despite all of its flaws -- and I've come to think there were even more of them than I did when I reviewed it -- the best book I read in October was David Michaelis's controversial biography Schulz and Peanuts. No life looks the same to all viewers, and Michaelis shone a piercing light on a great American artist.

November: This is a tough month to decide among; the top candidates are John Banville's interesting but flawed The Sea and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which I got to about a decade late. (Also of note: The Surgeon's Tale by Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer, the mildly anti-revisionism graphic novel Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality, and Alain de Botton's interesting but bland The Architecture of Happiness.) The Sea takes it on points.

December: Shaun Tan's The Arrival is the best wordless book I've ever seen, and had the best reason to be wordless. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union was a stunning achievement that faltered a bit at the end. And my book to end the year is Steve Erickson's Zeroville, an intensely American great novel.

And, to put the top picks into a handy list form, these are then my Top Ten Twelve books of the year:
Happy New Year to you all -- and happy reading in 2008!

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