I read quite a lot of books in 2015, and while I didn’t rate as many books at 90 as in 2014, it was nonetheless an excellent reading year for me.
Besides comments on a lot of books, I’ll also discuss some structure I introduced to my writing this year and the positive effects that had on my discipline. But before that, the five books I gave my highest rating to in 2015.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
This pulled me in immediately and didn’t let go. As a treatment of loss, trauma, art, love, and growing up it was phenomenal. I’m aware of some flaws in it, but while reading it I was too captivated by the atmosphere to be affected by them.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Samuel R Delany
That this ended up with such a good rating was quite a surprise to me, given that even at the halfway point I was still annoyed with it and thought it wouldn’t pass my recommendation threshold.
I’m not a squeamish reader, but even with advance warning I found the beginning difficult going. I was squarely in agreement with Delany’s message of toleration for diverse sexual practices even before starting it, but was highly irritated by what I felt was his constant bludgeoning of the reader with that message—that message and various forms of its companion message, “you say you’re tolerant, but what about of this? How about this?”.
But it changed as it progressed, and ended up being an extraordinarily powerful depiction of aging, memory, and mortality, one that entirely deserved its very high rating.
Ulysses, James Joyce
I loved the first four chapters when I read them over two decades ago, but found myself resistant to resuming it, so resistant that it continually sat on my shelf as I failed to persuade myself to return to it. That I got to it this year is one of the markers of the change in my reading discipline.
Those four chapters were excellent the second time around, but after that I found it harder going.
Its depth and intricacy are in keeping with its reputation—and doubtless I missed a great deal. It’s an incredible exploration of experience and how to match writing to various experiences, while also a masterful literary map of Dublin. Even as a Dubliner with a reasonable cultural and historical understanding of the city I found it difficult to grasp a lot of it, and it’s hard for me to imagine how much more opaque it would seem to someone without that background. But it was entirely worth the effort required to read it.
It was also much weirder than I had anticipated, on a number of levels—the first four chapters play much straighter than the rest.
A masterpiece entirely deserving of its reputation.
Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End, Silvie Tissot
This nonfiction work is the one I feel strangest about rating so highly, and also one that makes the absurdities of the rating system clear. But I try to rate based on how much I enjoy the book, and for whatever reason I enjoyed this ethnography of the gentrifiers of South Boston a great deal.
Tissot exposed much that I hadn’t considered, and in particular I appreciated her exploration of the uses of the concept of “diversity” in the context of gentrification.
Part of my enjoyment of it comes from its relevance to San Francisco, struggling mightily with very similar problems, so that the subject matter was not merely fascinating but also felt very close to where I am.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber
Nonfiction about what seems to be the water that all of modern society swims in. Graeber explores the mechanisms of bureaucracy with insight and humor, and while this isn’t as deep a work as his earlier Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, I consider it required reading for anyone interested in how bureaucracy shapes our lives just as the earlier work was for anyone interested in how money functions.
Some highlights include:
- That our tendency to regard the formalization of rules as “neutral” means we will increase the reach of bureaucracy into more and more spheres of human activity, and have already done so quite extensively.
- His examination of what he calls “structural violence”, particularly in relation to the previous point.
- His distinction between “poetic” and “bureaucratic” technologies, as part of an inquiry into why we don’t have all the wonderful technological breakthroughs we thought we’d have (aside from the Internet).
- A brief but strong section on the origins of the modern social welfare state and how it was largely a defensive reaction to successful social programs coming from leftist parties.
- Most of his exploration of the attraction of bureaucracy in the third section, and I especially like this:
Freedom, then, really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating.—200. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. David Graeber. Melville House, 2015. Kindle Edition. ASIN: B00MKZ0QZ2.
and this:It’s legitimate for the police to use violence because they are enforcing the law; the law is legitimate because it’s rooted in the constitution; the constitution is legitimate because it comes from the people; the people created the constitution by acts of illegal violence.—214. Ibid.
Comments on some of the other books I read this year that I consider worthy of recommendation.
The Martian, Andy Weir (80)
Straightforward but convincing and compelling science fiction that seems both a throwback (to something like Robinson Crusoe) and very contemporary (because of its content and how the author crowdsourced some of the solutions to the protagonist’s problems).
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (80)
I tried to read this in 2011 and couldn’t finish it—in fact, after failing to finish it, I more or less didn’t read anything for three months. This time I decided to approach it as something to swim through rather than to comprehend. That shift, and the fact that the first third was familiar from my previous attempt, made it much more approachable.
It contains phenomenal passages, often psychedelically fantastic in nature, and those are what I considered its strengths. There is likely a profoundly complex deeper structure, but I was unwilling to put in the work to excavate it. The proliferation of characters was difficult to handle—some might show up early in the text and give all the signs of being important, and then disappear for vast swathes of the book—as I suspect was Pynchon’s intention. I took from that the message that we don’t know who the important characters in life are, either, and that we are surrounded at all times by people whose stories are both unpredictably interleaved with ours and strange in various ways (although I can’t really accept that they’re likely to be as strange as the stories of Pynchon’s characters).
“The Story of Byron the Bulb”, the life of an “immortal” light-bulb and his struggle against the Phoebus cartel, was one of those phenomenal passages, and one that illustrates a strength of the text, Pynchon’s ability to move from one narrative strand to another without breaking the flow (although he breaks it more than usual in this particular example, as Byron’s story gets its own section title).
Worth mentioning is that Pynchon seems to have predicted, and characterized the nature of, the myth/dream of The Singularity in 1973:
Maybe there is a Machine to take us away, take us completely, suck us out through the electrodes out of the skull ’n’ into the Machine and live there forever with all the other souls it’s got stored there. It could decide who it would suck out, a-and when. Dope never gave you immortality. You hadda come back, every time, into a dying hunk of smelly meat! But We can live forever, in a clean, honest, purified Electroworld——699. Gravity’s Rainbow. Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press, 1973. Kindle Edition. ASIN: B005CRQ3MA.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (85), and Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban (85)
These two very different postapocalyptic works were both excellent, and share the title of best books in that genre I’ve read. Station Eleven deals with its apocalypse and the near- and medium-term aftermath, in a narrative that jumps back and forth in time, while Riddley Walker is set in a time far after its apocalypse and is linear in its narrative, although it does excellent work in revealing the past to the reader along the way. Riddley Walker is also written in a fictitious future dialect of English that comes across as very convincing.
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (85)
The first Ferrante I’ve read, this was a searingly raw depiction of a woman dealing with her husband’s desertion, disturbing and highly convincing in its exposure of the fragility of the human psyche.
On Revolution, Hannah Arendt (85)
Nonfiction about the nature of revolution, examined mainly through contrasts between the French and American Revolutions. Insightful and convincing, and with plenty of historical details I’d been unaware of and views on power I hadn’t considered.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (80)
The strongest aspects of this for me were its examination of near-descent into mental illness brought on by the strain involved in a non-traditional woman’s life in England in the 1950s and of what it was like to be a Communist Party member in the same milieu.
Lessing’s psychological insight was present throughout, but was marred for me by her tendency to make sweeping normative statements, particularly on the basis of gender.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (80), and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (85)
Books sharing a conceit: protagonists who after death re-live their lives, with memories of their previous experiences and the ability to change their actions. Life After Life is probably the better-written of the two, and is a more “literary” work, but I found I enjoyed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August more, partly because it had what I consider a real plot.
The Bug, Ellen Ullman (80)
This might deserve a higher rating, but I was slightly distracted while reading some of it. The fictional story of a difficult bug and the detrimental effects it has on the life of a software engineer at a database company in the 1980s, The Bug was excellent and included some of the best layperson-accessible descriptions of the experience of programming and the mindset it encourages that I’ve encountered.
In terms of what I chose to read, my reading has been undisciplined for years—I would just select something that seemed good and read it. And there’s nothing wrong with that in the least. Joining book clubs over the last several years has mandated some discipline, but since book club books are a low percentage of my reading it wasn’t that significant.
Following a reading plan, on the other hand, is. But I was able to get myself to do it, and after a couple of months I realized first, that I was now used to it, and second, that I could use it to get past the resistance towards various books I wanted to read.
The first of those was Gravity’s Rainbow, and I meant it as a test. Having failed to read it the first time through, and feeling a slightly-superstitious fear that it would again bring my reading to a halt, I thought that if I could put it on the reading plan and then follow through and finish it, then the reading plan was going to work as an approach.
It did; after Gravity’s Rainbow I added Ulysses, and later Gilead, The Ethics of Ambiguity, and The Golden Notebook, all books I’d been resistant at some point to attempting.
Knowing that I can follow the reading plan is liberating in an odd sense: I lose the freedom of being able to simply choose what I want to read next after finishing a book, but I gain the ability to actually read books that I decide I want to read, such as those just mentioned. At the moment this seems like a worthwhile exchange.
Tracking the books that I read, and in particular the number of books I read in a given year, helps me follow the reading plan. The desire to increase that number, to “check off” a book, to make the metrics look good, seems to be an important factor in why I’m able to follow the plan.
It’s not very romantic, and certainly doesn’t feel very “literary”, to be near-obsessive about the quantity of books one reads. But the small fulfillment of adding a book to the record provides enough of a push to get me to at least start books that I’m perhaps not that enthusiastic about—and since I generally love reading, that push is enough.
There are exceptions—the awful Death on the Installment Plan took me 26 days to finish—but mostly that incentive is also enough to keep me going on books that I don’t particularly like.
It also seems that sticking to a reading plan leads to my reading better books—while there are fewer 90-rated books on this year’s list, the overall rating average is the highest since I started rating books, and both the number and proportion of books I recommend are higher than any previous year.
In 2015 I read:
87 books with an average of 371 pages per book, an average rating of 78, taking an average of 5 days to read.
87 is the highest number of books I’ve read in a year this millennium. 32,260 pages is the highest number of pages I’ve read this millennium (page count isn’t exactly reliable, but over large numbers of books/pages is probably a reasonable measure).
All the books I read in 2015, in chronological order. You can see this more nicely formatted elsewhere.
Ratings are based on how much I enjoyed the book at the time. I wrote the comment on each book shortly after finishing it.
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron.
I’m probably inclined to like a pop-neuroscience guide to writing a good story, but I thought this was excellent, and it’s already helped me face a few things about my current novel that I think I would have avoided otherwise.
Pandora’s Star, Peter F Hamilton.
Sprawling space fantasy/opera, with some interesting ideas; Hamilton writes a good page turner, and perhaps this deserves a higher rating—but I’m still a little wary after the ending of The Naked God.
Judas Unchained, Peter F Hamilton.
A gripping plot and a fairly good ending, but too many pieces that proved a little too predictable.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.
Phenomenal. Amazingly immersive, with the rare drift out of verisimilitude more than made up for by the writing.
The Free, Brian Ruckley.
Well-written, gritty, low-to-medium fantasy about the last days of a mercenary company; stays within itself while dealing with meaningful stakes.
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner.
I’m not convinced about how well it coheres, but the writing is enough to carry it, and the stories of 1970s Italy and the 1970s New York art world are compelling.
Wild Seed, Octavia E Butler.
Better than I expected, but the core concept of supernatural abilities and the breeding program of an immortal body-jumper is a little too out there for me to give it a better rating.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Samuel R Delany.
A really difficult book that elicited squeamish reactions more than I’d expected—despite having had advance warning—but that was also extremely powerful, particularly in its extraordinarily poignant closing section examining aging, memory, and mortality. The end was enough to get me to forgive Delany for the bludgeoning about toleration for diverse sexual practices; it’s also important to respect a book that made me cry.
The Martian, Andy Weir.
Excellent hard-SF tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars. Convincing and compelling.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman.
Insightful but depressing psychological study of a young New York writer and his relationships with women. Sharply written and observed.
Sandman Slim, Richard Kadrey.
Some good lines, but it didn’t hang together for me, and the cosmology didn’t work for me either. Also, a lot of the fights felt weirdly anticlimactic or unconvincing.
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.
Complex, psychedelic and weird, I got through it this second time around by treating it more as sea to enjoy swimming through than as structure to attempt to understand.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern.
Wonderfully written, with a sense of enchantment throughout that thoroughly suits the subject matter. Also, it kept its concerns tightly enough bound so that the implausibility of magic existing in our world did not overwhelm the story.
Collision Low Crossers, Nicholas Dawidoff.
Excellent account of the 2011 New York Jets from a writer who shadowed the team. More insight and detail than I would have expected, and also really made me appreciate Darrelle Revis.
The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez.
Affecting and well-written, a strong rendering of the contemporary immigrant experience, but somehow not as weighty as I would have liked, and something about the adolescent experience in it felt a little clichéd.
Cannery Row, John Steinbeck.
Some amazing writing and great individual passages, but it didn’t come together enough for me.
Anarchism and Its Aspirations, Cindy Milstein.
Idealistic and inspiring, but also over-optimistic and perhaps slightly glib in places, I found this both enjoyable and valuable but somehow not quite delivering.
The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen J Langer.
Some interesting research and perspectives, and some points about mindfulness versus tunnel-vision pursuit of goals that I consider important, but overall I didn’t like the writing and felt that the author used questionable examples and balanced poorly in terms of what to detail and what to summarize.
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks.
Brief and brutal, with typical Banks focus on awful events and their effect on people, as well as careful construction of perspective that later comes into question. The eponymous eighth chapter is fantastically written, and for me is the highlight of the book.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel.
Excellent postapocalyptic novel, admirably restrained in many ways, with an interesting mixture of hope and despair. The core premise—a wandering orchestra/Shakespeare company in the decades after a catastrophic plague—is a strong one and handled very well. Probably the best postapocalyptic novel I’ve read.
Grimus, Salman Rushdie.
Transdimensional psychic-psychedelic magical-realist science fiction, but not in a great way. Some of the writing is good, but overall it didn’t do much for me, and it’s very 1970s.
Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick.
A semi-fictionalized memoir, a stream of memories, of letters, a reflection on life and aging, a recollecting comet across the night sky of personal history.
Skagboys, Irvine Welsh.
Powerful writing about 1980s Edinburgh’s heroin epidemic/economic depression, seen through the eyes of mostly working-class individuals (the core of whom are the key characters in Trainspotting, to which this is the prequel). Includes the scariest account of trying heroin that I’ve ever read.
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante.
Devastating account of a woman’s reaction to her husband’s desertion, with a particular emphasis on assaults on her sense of self from her husband’s acts and from her children. Honest, powerful, and emotionally raw, with depth of insight into the often-hidden pillars of the structures of our selves.
Ulysses, James Joyce.
A masterpiece much weirder than I’d anticipated brilliant in its approach to making the style match the thoughts and the subject of the subject fascinating as a Dubliner to be guided through the layered maze of Dublin over a hundred years past unblinking in its dive into the sleepy stormy silly sea of consciousness.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson.
A completely convincing narrative voice, one that is a pleasure to read—particularly later in the book—and which tells a story more subtle than I’d expected while also making itself far more relatable to me than I’d expected from the tale of small-town Midwestern pastor in the twilight of his life.
Inversions, Iain M Banks.
Thoroughly enjoyable, Banks doing a science fiction work masquerading (sort of) as a fantasy tale.
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy.
Disturbing, an indictment of American society’s treatment of poor women. Also has some similarities to The Dispossessed, although less optimistic in a number of ways. Like many time travel works, the mechanics of the time travel aspects were distracting and implausible, detracting from the rest of the narrative.
The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey.
The core story, of dissecting and overturning historical claims regarding “The Princes in the Tower” and their alleged murder by Richard III, is gripping and excellent. But the protagonist—his prejudices, his smugness, his ludicrous belief in his ability to “read faces”—drags the narrative down considerably.
Super-Cannes, J G Ballard.
Some excellent writing and some highly relevant explorations of modern technocratic pathologies, but unfortunately it lagged near the end and didn’t live up to earlier promise.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki.
I’m not sure why I didn’t like this more. I think the disparate parts were individually strong but didn’t fit together well enough, and I found the quantum mechanics part unconvincing rather than fascinating.
Death on the Installment Plan, Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Interminable, with much of the misanthropy and misery of Bukowski but little of the wit; it started promisingly and descended into a biographical miasma of awfulness from which it never emerged.
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins.
Well-written and interesting, but perhaps unfairly I kept thinking of Gone Girl while reading it, and it’s not as incisive as Gone Girl (although it does seem more plausible).
Octavia’s Brood, .
Laudable idea, but the editors should have spent far more time editing and workshopping the stories, most of which were the very rough beginnings of stories rather than actual stories.
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell.
Another book I wanted to like more. It’s too long, and too much of the first half ends up seeming irrelevant. There is also of course my difficulty in taking seriously any work that simply assumes the existence of souls as part of its bedrock cosmology. Overall, I found it promising, but kept expecting more, some deeper aspects, that simply never arrived.
Catching the Big Fish, David Lynch.
Brief and simple, it seems like there’s almost nothing to this book, yet I found myself strongly affected by some of Lynch’s statements, and could see myself returning to re-read parts of it again.
Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, Hanne Blank.
An excellent historical overview that also makes a powerful case for the rejection of orthodoxy and categorization, particularly where the categorization is never as accurate as people try to make it.
Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi.
The highly unsatisfactory final section/ending drags down the excellent and strange writing and story. Still a fascinating remix of the Snow White story with race, identity, appearance, and the disjunction of all three.
The Given Day, Dennis Lehane.
Excellent and unflinching account of race and class relations wrapped in a crime novel set in 1918 Boson, although its portrayal of anticapitalist forces is one-sided and clichéd.
On Revolution, Hannah Arendt.
Excellent overview, particularly of the American and French Revolutions, with a number of angles I hadn’t considered before. My only gripe is that occasionally the sentence structure could be hard to follow, but that’s a minor price for the insights contained in it.
Men in Space, Tom McCarthy.
Some promise, but ultimately a set of vignettes that doesn’t hold together in a satisfying fashion.
Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism, Geoff Mann.
Excellent succinct and clear-eyed summary of contemporary capitalist crisis, and some possibilities of how we might emerge from it in a postcapitalist future.
Up Against It, M J Locke.
Good non-FTL SF with some interesting concepts and a well-rendered world; felt a little too YA at times for my taste, but still worthwhile.
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey.
Excellent evocation of the desert wrapped in a cross between John Muir and Charles Bukowski.
The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey.
Excellent writing about two homesteaders in Alaska, and the mystery of the snow child is handled quite well, but doesn’t fully satisfy—something that’s difficult to do when bringing in supernatural, fairy-tale-like elements.
The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, Hubert Wolf.
A fascinating story, very well-researched, but let down by the somewhat dry writing style and structure, which seemed to often undercut the dramatic aspects of what was being recounted.
The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir.
Convincing exploration of existentialist ethics, in a highly accessible form.
The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu.
A first-contact page-turner with very distinct ideas regarding the hows and whys of interstellar conflict, against the disturbing background of recent Chinese history.
Street Games: Bygone Times in Brooklyn, Richard M Abrams.
This involved a surprising amount of nostalgia for me given that I played street games in the Bronx 40 years later, but that made it a fun read. A very short book, but one that captures an American street culture that I suspect now is truly lost.
Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L Sayers.
Lively and well-written detective fiction, with some commentary on advertising made more interesting by having been written in 1933, but too English and too much of its time for my taste.
Reality is What You Can Get Away With, Robert Anton Wilson.
Fun and entertaining, but mostly (as he states in the foreword) a recombination of ideas he’s presented previously. Enjoyable, but not as good as most of his fiction.
Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End, Sylvie Tissot.
An examination of the gentrification process in Boston’s South End over about 50 years, I found this fascinating and illuminating. Extremely relevant to San Francisco (and other areas grappling with gentrification) despite its deliberate focus on the details of the South End’s history, it also exposes some of the ways in which the definition of “diversity” has been shaped to serve specific powerful interests. Highly recommended for anyone interested in gentrification.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing.
Fascinating and psychologically insightful writing about male-female relationships (albeit in a specific timeframe, i.e. mid-1900s), communism and the conflicts created by being a member of the Communist Party near the time of Stalin, madness, and also about the writing process itself. Lessing’s tendency to generalize and to couch things in normative terms dragged it down, however.
Look to Windward, Iain M Banks.
It falls very slightly short of the heights reached by Excession, but I still loved it. Far-flung massive-scale science fiction with a focus on the horrors of war, the nature of revenge, and the difficulties of resopnsibility and loyalty. Very tempted to give this a rating of 90, but I’m not quite certain, which seems a strong reason to stick with 85.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson.
The many lives of Ursula, born in 1910—over and over, after each death. An exploration of England and Europe during and between the wars, it’s clever and well-written, with wit that effectively complements the dark subject matter.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan.
I had trouble engaging with it at first, but later found it extremely powerful. The prose is excellent and the intertwined stories of love, morality, war, poetry, and horror are all gripping.
Island, Aldous Huxley.
Excellent final chapter, a powerful description of psychedelic experience. And the rest of the book has strong aspects to it and provides plenty of food for thought—but it suffers from being largely a set of excuses for philosophical discussion, and much of its characterization seems shallow (although not necessarily unrealistic). Can be read as a manifesto for meditation, openness to spirituality, and psychedelic drug use, all of which are paths Huxley suggests for dealing with the horrors of reality. I really struggled between giving this 75 and 80, eventually deciding on 80 because the ideas are interesting enough to overcome the stylistic shortcomings.
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson.
Elliptical, with unexpected turns that, eventually, are entirely justified by the subject matter, this tale of a young girl and her sister raised in strange domestic circumstances contains fluidly wondrous passages that overcame my initial difficulties with it.
This Immortal, Roger Zelazny.
I don’t think SF is written like this anymore; perhaps This Immortal sharing the 1966 Hugo with Dune marked a significant shift in the genre. Somewhat whimsical, taking for granted that the reader will go along with many oddities, never explaining key aspects of the story, and relying on a kind of bravado to carry it all off, it didn’t work for me. That bravado seemed insufficient, and without it the rest didn’t add up to enough.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn.
Bizarre, excellent, and disturbing work that makes its strange cast of characters mostly quite convincing. Probably deserves a higher rating,but I was so irritated by Oly’s love for Arty—even though it makes perfect sense in the text—that it marred my enjoyment of the book.
Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, Kieran Conway.
Competently written, I rate it highly because of how fascinating I found the account of someone who lived very close to where I did in Dublin, and went to the same university for undergrad I did, albeit about 25 years earlier, and for its apparently-honest examination of a very dirty war. It’s also an interesting description of radicalization and disillusionment.
Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie.
While I appreciate Leckie’s point about endings, and the complementary message delivered by the narrowing of scale in the latter two books, I still felt disappointment at not getting a more expansive view in this conclusion. In addition, this is the first book in the series where I felt that certain passages were crudely inserted to deliver messages instead of arising out of the story and characters.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North.
Something like a cross between Replay, Life After Life, and The Bone Clocks; better writing than Replay or The Bone Clocks, perhaps not quite as good as Life After Life, but with a better plot. Excellent exploration of the idea, and furthermore a good encapsulation of the story within a world defined by that idea.
A Replacement Life, Boris Fishman.
Excellent novel about family, community, the scars of history, immigration, writing, and honesty. The history resonated in some ways and was alien in others, but interestingly alien. The protagonist was insightful at times and an idiot at times, which is probably realistic, and the idiocy was often convincing as the outcome of deep, murky struggles with identity and with unclear desire. Also, the protagonist’s relationships with women his own age were less convincing to me than the rest of the book.
The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne.
Strong and strange, this novel of two entwined journeys begun in violence and pain was compelling in some ways I didn’t fully understand. I found Mariama’s story more convincing than Meena’s, even though Meena had the more realistic voice. The ending was slightly contrived but that seemed forgivable. Unreliable narration abounded, but even given that, and Meena’s clear instability, her decision to walk the Trail still strikes me implausible, and that might be the novel’s biggest weakness.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber.
Excellent examination of why the entire world seems to be turning into a giant inescapable bureaucracy, as well as an examination of the relationship between bureaucracy, stupidity, and violence. Makes clear quite a few important sets of power relations; also, I thoroughly enjoyed the commentaries on science fiction, fantasy, D&D, games, and play.
Bodily Harm, Margaret Atwood.
Atwood’s writing is excellent, as usual, and this exploration of illness and mortality is strong in places, as is the unflinching portrayal of a Canadian woman out of her depth in the midst of a tropical revolution. The protagonist is realistically rendered not heroic in the common sense, but this realism makes it waver between being compelling and feeling like it’s extremely fatalistic. Overall it had a strong 1970s feel to it that pushed me out of the narrative despite the strong writing.
I Think You’ll Find it’s a Bit More Complicated Than That, Ben Goldacre.
A collection of excellent columns on dodgy science, this was amusing throughout, with some excellent lines, and its overall message—that the scientific method, in conjunction with knowledge of statistics and statistical quirks, is our best shot at determining the truth of claims—one I wholeheartedly agree with.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras.
Amazing, chilling, compelling, this story of madness, family, colonialism, and desire flows darkly and packs a lot of impact into such a short work.
Live by Night, Dennis Lehane.
Very strong in segments, and caught me by surprise a couple of times, but it was also uneven and some of didn’t quite ring true.
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood.
Excellent in parts, and convincing in its depiction of a hellish near-future and the postapocalyptic world that follows, but not quite plausible enough in its story of how one became the other.
Geek Mafia, Rick Dakan.
Some interesting ideas about living a con-artist/pirate lifestyle in modern California, but while it has energy and moves right along, the writing was pedestrian, the characters shallow, and the scenarios ultimately implausible.
Death of an Englishman, Magdalen Nabb.
The author’s development of the setting of Florence, while effective, didn’t do a lot for me, and I didn’t find the characters particularly convincing. I was impressed by the resolution of the mystery, however, and felt that the final section of the book was by far the strongest.
The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan.
Amazing rendition of rural (quasi-rural?) Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the post-Tiger bust. Excellent writing that pulled me in from the start and a set of characters and situations that rang true to a disturbing degree.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler.
Phenomenal writing, with an emphasis on exploring the notion of unreliable narration—that is, a narrator who knows she’s unreliable, or potentially so—and on the notions of identity, family, and humanity. I knew nothing almost nothing about it when I started it, so the “twist” took me by surprise; I’m not sure that approach was necessary, but it probably was.
World Gone By, Dennis Lehane.
Excellently-written closing novel in the trilogy, probably the tightest of the three. Not without flaws, but it pulled me in from the start and kept things moving, with a strong sense of being a window on a disturbing slice of the world.
The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector.
An extraordinary account of a mystical-existential-schizophrenic break/trip/insight, with some phenomenal writing. However, the text only broke over me a few times, only a few times rose up to submerge me in its intensity, and the rest of the time I skated over it, seeing the depths below but not touched by them.
The Choirboys, Jim Wambaugh.
I can see how this was an important book, as an exposé of the culture of the LAPD, and the stories have the feel of authenticity underlying them, but there’s no real plot, just a sequence of related tales, and overall it feels like a much poorer Catch-22 but with policing instead of military life as its environment.
Speedboat, Renata Adler.
Not really a novel, but a set of vaguely-connected rapidly-switching vignettes, with a clever, whimsical, insightful style that was highly amusing in places.
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber.
Just barely short of my recommendation threshold; I thought the writing was good and the main characters well-rendered, and it avoided some of the pitfalls about aliens that I’d been fearing, but ultimately the setting seemed shallow in places and the story wasn’t satisfying enough for me. (I’m also not that interested in the religious aspects of the book.)
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton.
I loved the opening and most of the first half, but the second half felt too crowded and lost the intimacy and focus of the beginning.
Dreamland, Newton Thornburg.
Good 80s California crime fiction, with some excellent writing capturing the West Coast of the era, but not quite gripping enough to warrant recommendation, and I found the antagonists implausible.
The Bug, Ellen Ullman.
Probably the best description of the programming state of mind that I’ve read, interleaved with a good story and the searches for meaning, truth, and structure. Also a very good examination at how computer programs are created and interrelate, and how complex the architecture underlying a huge part of our world is.
Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban.
I was skeptical at first, but this postapocalyptic tale of life in a future England, told in a mutated form of English, was convincing and had a fascinating evolved mythos that was both plausible and powerful, and it also stayed within itself, content to show the setting and its problems rather than to plot an answer to those problems. On the top tier of postapocalyptic novels along with Station Eleven.
Natural History, Justina Robson.
Well-rendered first contact/alien artifact SF with interesting concepts, reasonable characterization, and good writing.
The One from the Other, Philip Kerr.
Good detective fiction in the very interesting milieu of post-WW2 Germany, with some great lines, and it surprised me in a few places, ending up somewhere I didn’t expect at all.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë.
I grudgingly give it credit for vividly portraying the characters, but this time around I found it utterly ridiculous (as opposed to somewhat silly the first time), with a cast of unpleasant and thoroughly immature individuals displaying their petulance, pettiness, and self-absorption—and how did the appalling Heathcliff become some kind of romantic paragon? On the good side, I re-read this in advance of reading The Lost Child, and now I’m curious about whether or not that text can adequately answer the question of what Heathcliff went through in his absence that explains how he ended up the way he did.
|||To repeat my footnote from last year: 90 is the highest rating I’ve been willing to give out; thus far my ratings, despite ostensibly being a percentage, go from 40 to 90. In part 90 is the highest I’ll go because it seems pointless to distinguish further once a book reaches superlative status; at the same time, “100%” would indicate perfection, which I guess I believe is impossible.|
|||Assigning the same number to a nonfiction work and to Ulysses is particularly weird, but the implied assertion that Ulysses and, for example, The Goldfinch are of the same quality is also problematic—but 90 more or less serves as a rating that represents my having loved the book and not having encountered sufficient reservations to temper that love.|
|||646–654. Gravity’s Rainbow. Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press, 1973. Kindle Edition. ASIN: B005CRQ3MA.|
|||I refer here to the “consciousness upload” version, not the “exponential increases in artificial intelligence” version.|
|||Whatever that means… but here I mean that a solid plot is generally considered less literary, particularly in works that can be fit into genres (in this case, science fiction or fantasy).|
|||Certain books don’t “count” either way: books with multiple authors of different genders, book club books (because I can’t control what they are and also have to read them according to a schedule), and books where the author’s gender is unclear or doesn’t fall into the two major categories.|
|||Hugo Award for Best Novel, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Man Booker Prize for Fiction, National Book Award for Fiction, Nebula Award for Best Novel, PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.|