Here are the thirteen books I read in 2014 that I enjoyed most:
1. Blindsight by Peter Watts. Why in the hell did I wait so long? Usually, when a book fills me with the pain of being exactly what I was trying to write a decade ago, I can console myself that it wasn’t that well done. But Peter Watts but has the generously cruel decency to do it a million times better than I would have done it anyway. This is a real titan of a hard SF novel. I discussed it here and also here.
2. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. Delightful memoir-flavored fiction about growing up as an in-betweener–half-Indian, bisexual, in the arts world but also not quite at home in it, surrounded by political radicals but not committed oneself–in 1970s London. A very impressive debut novel, Kureishi does things with comedy, voice, and sympathy that are well worth studying and learning from… once you’ve enjoyed the book as a novel, that is. See here for more.
3. Bullettime by Nick Mamatas. I rambled a bit about this yesterday, but I’ll add: this was probably one of the oddest books I read all year long. I definitely look forward to digging into the rest of his fiction soon. (And will be ordering The Nickronomicon once I finally find a job. That’s the reward I’ve promised myself: horror and evil deserves to be balanced with a little horror and evil, right?)
4. True Grit by Charles Portis. Another great novel that makes use of voice, and manipulates you through the strength of a single character’s point of view. Half the fun of this book is trying to piece together what the narrator edited out, altered, or just plain wishes happened. The other half of the fun is the wonderful narrator, a girl who, even as a teenager, maybe couldn’t kick your ass, but could definitely hire someone to do it for her. I didn’t get around to posting about the book, though I did mention liking the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation at some point, I think–and it is a great film. But the book is even better!
5. The Dazzle of the Day by Molly Gloss. A generation-ship of mostly middle-aged Quakers looking for someplace to call home. Gloss does it in such a way where, instead of thinking, “Huh, I actually liked this,” you think, “Of course I liked this!” It’s a really, really good book. Another one I guess I didn’t blog about, but I pushed it onto a friend whose top list for the year also included it, and who had things to say about it that are much like what I thought.(Also, his more in-depth comments here.)
6. Junky by William S. Burroughs. An immensely strange, hilarious book about an immensely bleak, horrid subject (addiction) by an immensely troubled, strange man. I “read” it as an audiobook narrated by someone who pretty much seems to be trance-channeling Burroughs. Helps make crystal-clear what the influence of Beat literature was on Cyberpunk, not that I didn’t have an inkling of it already, and really it’s also a touchstone of outsider literature in general. Another book I gushed about in email, but not on ye olde blogge. Sorry!
7. The Cunning Man’s Handbook: The Practice of English Folk Magic, 1550-1900 by Jim Baker. Modern wicca is an invented tradition, and the real stuff–the folk magic practiced by professional practitioners in England from before Shakespeare until the beginning of the 20th century–was weirder than anything the modern wiccans have come up with, both in actual practice and in philosophical underpinnings. Anyone writing fiction involving magic should read this… and I’ll add, it is potentially useful beyond the borders of England. (There are many parallels with folk magic, whether called that or “traditional medicine,” in East Asian traditions.) I discussed it here, in passing here, and more extensively here.
8. The Brewing Industry in England: 1700-1830 by Peter Mathias. Another research book, but an immensely fascinating one, if you’re interested in knowing way more about the industrialization of brewing in Georgian England than anyone you know. Mathias was an economist, so the focus is on more practical stuff, lots of maps and numbers and tables and charts and expense comparisons, though there are anecdotes along the way as well. For a beer geek, this one is totally worth it, even if the prices for a used copy are a bit astronomical. I’ve made extensive references to it over the past year, but here’s the main post about it.
9. Islington Crocodiles, by Paul Meloy. Deliriously weird stuff. Imagine what D&D would have been like if Gary Gygax had dropped LSD, read a bunch of Lovecraft, designed a game for urban fantasy/horror, set in early 21st century England. This book’s out of print, but well worth hunting down if you like weird fiction. I discussed it just the other day.
10. Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience, 1900-1950 (The Missionary Enterprise in Asia) by Donald N. Clark. Nonfiction, all about what the title suggests. I’d have traded some of the missionary anecdotes for more information on other Westerners operating in South Korea during the period, but even so the book is a goldmine. I discussed it here.
11. What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. A great book about the experience of being a soldier–both the being-sent-to-war part, and the part about coming back home and rebuilding yourself, or failing to do so. Be prepared to be uncomfortable with some of his arguments; be prepared to learn from that discomfort; even if, in the end, you don’t agree with everything he says, there’s a lot here that’s hard to dismiss completely, especially in Marlantes’ criticisms regarding what needs changing in the way modern military training works. The whole discussion of whether the U.S. military is operating on a body-count quota in its current fight with ISIS, for example, comes to mind in terms of what Marlantes says about body counts and policy during the Vietnam war. Here’s what I said about it a while back.
12. Ayam Curtain by June Yang and Joyce Chng. A wonderfully weird little collection of Singaporean speculative fiction, bringing together some well-known (in Singapore) authors with some new ones. While the stories mostly flittered away like the birds that permeate the book, and at which the punny title gestures, the experience of reading it stuck with me, and I kept wondering why there aren’t more little themed anthologies like this. Makes me want to launch a Korea-focused one, or even a Seoul-focused one. A quick, but very interesting, read. Discussed it recently.
13. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Better, funnier, and smarter than a lot of the novels I read last year. More politically relevant, too. Swift is remarkable in a number of ways, and maybe I’ll even get around to mentioning a few here soon. If you haven’t read Gulliver’s Travels since you were a kid, go back and read it. It’s worth it… especially if you’re willing to steep yourself in the history a bit, so some of the references make a little more sense. Most of what I had to say about it is in posts on the South Sea Bubble, which I haven’t yet published, but will put up soon.
While I’m not going to apologize for the obvious demographic slant–yes, I noticed that white male American authors dominate the list above–I will clarify that it was a year spent reading books from a huge pile I carried to Vietnam from Korea, because the bookstores in Saigon are… well, they leave a lot to be desired. I was mostly stuck with what I had packed on the spur of the moment a few years before, in other words. The full list of everything I read in the past year is more diverse, though the same skew is noticeable.
Anyway, now for the gritty details. Here’s a collection of book covers for everything, in no particular order:
I’ll pop a full list of my year’s reading, including details on what I never managed to finish, beneath the cut.