But even in the midst of waste and desolation, there is hope. Even in 2007, a year in which the forces of darkness were exalted, there were bright spots here and there, and it’s our duty here at year’s end to extoll those bright spots, to assure you all that your reading is not in vain – indeed, that your faith in reading is not misplaced. Very, very good books are still being published, and we take the occasion of this, our final posting of 2007, to sing their praises as their merits warrant.
That ‘published’ provides our only pausing – for the best writing we saw this year, the best by a very wide margin, was writing as yet unseen by publication. It’s one of our singular privileges here at Stevereads to see much of this kind of unpublished material, and we’re honored by it, though it forces us into a position of being proudest of things nobody else has seen.
But among what remains, there’s much to commend your attention, and much to merit our praise. Here, then, without further ado, are the best books of 2007:
10. Nova Swing by M. John Harrison – The renewed presence of Harrison in the sci-fi lists is a gift unlike any currently being given in the publishing world. We recently heard a very young acquaintance refer to his previous novel Light as “so good it was almost scary,” and we agree: there’s something pleasantly unsettling about writing this good. Harrison’s latest, Nova Swing, returns to the fictional world of Light, and the characters an dialogue on hand here are if anything even sharper than the previous book.
9. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman – this book certainly asks the most beguiling hypothetical of any work this year: what would happen to the Earth and all of its inhabitants if every single human instantly disppeared tomorrow? Weisman and all the experts he consults can’t help but conclude that such a disappearance would be hugely beneficial to everybody else living on this planet, a conclusion we here at Stevereads whole-heartedly second.
8. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch – this flooringly great debut fantasy novel is equal parts M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It’s the story of the eponymous young orphan and apprentice thief (that fanciful name ‘Locke’ is an obvious tipoff that we’re in the realm of fantasy), and it’s told with such shining strength and humor that you’ll literally be smiling as you read, carried along by Lynch’s amazing voice. With bookends like him and Harrison, the genre of science fiction need not fear for its future.
7. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett -this is certainly the most charming little book of this or many another season. Bennett’s delightful story introduces the Queen (never explicitly identified, but certainly Elizabeth II, that most modern of monarchs) to the joys of reading for pleasure. What follows is a winningly unerring description of the way reading can insinuate itself into any life and make it better for the reader and stranger for the new reader’s nearest and dearest. This book can be read in an hour, but its author has clearly been gestating it (or something like it) his whole life, and it’ll stick with its readers long after that hour’s up.
6. Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi – This monstrously huge 1500-page tome on JFK’s assassination (with a further 1500 words encoded on an accompanying disc) is many, many things: it’s remorselessly, even inhumanly thorough in sifting through facts, dates, and crackpot conspiracy theories; it’s endlessly contentious, attacking, chewing, and ultimately killing every single one of those theories; and of course it’s completely insane, as any work that delves so deep into such wayward waters must perforce become. But the main thing this gigantic book is for its entire length is good reading, which is a truly remarkable feat.
5. Mistress of the Arts of Death by Ariana Franklin – this is the story of our lady Adelia, trained in the medical and forensic arts in the 12th century, when such training hardly ever given to women. She’s called to Henry II’s England to investigate a series of murders, and the adventures that follow are stamped with an intelligence and lightly-worn learning that adorns virtually no historical fiction being written today. The future adventures of our insightful, unsentimental lady Adelia can only bring reading joy to future lists such as these.
4. Whatever You Do, Don’t Run by Peter Allison – this is a delightful collection of campfire ‘crankers’ is the next best thing to you’ll get to actually plunking down the $4700 and buying yourself a week in the veldt in person. Allison is everything you want in such a raconteur: he’s young but not callow, experienced but self-effacing, and very funny. There are great stories here about marauding apes, vicious hippos, and drunken British Royals, and all of said stories are served up with the same winning smile on every page.
3. The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert Strassler and translated by Andrea Purvis – lavish with maps and charts, positively profligate with notes and secondary materials, this new translation of the oldest of historians (here ably and more than ably rendered by Purvis) is the greatest single edition of the author ever produced.
2. The Big Bad Wolf and Me by Delphine Perret – Every year produces at least one book allegedly designated for children or ‘young adults’ which for all that cannot be fully appreciated by actual children and are clearly aimed at more knowing adults. This is one of those books, a quietly joyful story of a little boy who encounters a chapfallen Big Bad Wolf, who’s depressed because nobody’s afraid of him anymore. The little boy takes him in, and through a series of increasingly droll and hilarious enconters, the Big Bad eventually gets his scary back. There’s been no more intelligent and utterly winning ‘young adult’ book this year – nor book of any kind, for that matter.
1. Sacred Games by Vikram Seth – It’s difficult to summarize this, the best book of 2007. It’s appeared on many such lists (although none, it of course need not be pointed out, as learned or definitive as this one), and the accompanying summaries have staked out the necessary ground: a sprawling societal saga set in the teeming modern city of Mumbai (Bombay, to those of us who visited it in less politically correct days), featuring a fascinatingly drawn crime lord and an indelibly characterized Sikh policeman who decides almost against his will to enter the fray on the side of right. This enormous novel is unabashedly old-fashioned, if old-fashioned means plot-driven and full of great, shrewdly-drawn characters talking fantastic, note-perfect dialogue. It’s a monumental achievement on behalf of its young and personable author, and it deserves its spot atop our list summarizing the year of our lord 2007. It’s out in paperback just recently, so you should all treat yourselves to a reading experience unlike any you’ve ever had.
And there you have it – the year 2007 rendered in its literary particulars … a weird and worrisome year secularly and poltically and no less so reading-wise, since it saw the advent of Amazon.com’s Kindle, the latest electronic assualt on the citadel of book-reading. But amidst everything, books, real books, continue to appear.
We here at Stevereads hope to continue to be your guide for such books in the new year. But for now, we shutter the palatial offices here at Stevereads (well, we shutter our penthouse retreat – the fifteen lower office levels continue to operate at full capacity, most certainly including Christmas Day itself) and head off to our country estate up at Montauk, with Hippolyta mulling wine in the kitchen foyer (for our guests, you filthy-minded little ewoks – for our guests), Leni and Blondi tirelessly stalking perimeter patrol in the slicing snow, and Beepy contentedly munching seaweed somewhere out in the offshore dark. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and a marvellous New Year’s Day, and we hope with whatever hope we can muster that we’ll rejoin you all in the uncharted territories of 2008.