December 12th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – SFF
I read a lot of science fiction/fantasy in 2017 – as I do in every year, even though, as a devoted fan of square-bound SFF magazines, I increasingly find SFF novels to be basically bloated short stories, long on page-count but comparatively short on actual imaginative content. 2017’s SFF mostly disappointed me on exactly those grounds: no fault of execution, just a certain thinness, an over-reliance on gimmick and circumstance. These ten titles were the opposite: they’re all firmly grounded in the character-writing that’s always been at the heart of this genre:
10 Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer (Tor) – Our list kicks off this year with an enormously impressive debut novel about a world of towering trees overseen by living gods. Thoraiya Dyer gives readers the overly-familiar staple (seen in nearly half the novels on this list, for instance) of a plucky young heroine plunged into events beyond her knowledge and steadily deepens it into a very satisfying story about the people who inhabit this strange world.
9 The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (Putnam) – The stress that Meg Howrey puts on simulation in her story of three astronauts training in Earth for their upcoming mission to Mars creates a wonderfully-exploited level of narrative dislocation throughout this terrific novel, which is full of shrewd character studies done with a light touch and never forgets that all first-rate science fiction is about characters rather than science fiction.
8 Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey) – This sequel to Neuvel’s much-touted debut, Sleeping Giants, takes the action of that earlier installment to daring new levels, all while maintaining the addictive narrative tension of the original, a tension that elevates this whole story above its attractively humble ‘giant robot’ base materials. It’s true that Waking Gods is more dependent on Sleeping Giants than it should have been – but it was also a stronger book, so I didn’t much mind.
7 Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino, translated by Charles De Wolf (Akashic) – The premise of this funny and ultimately disturbing novel hinges on a telephone scam rife in Japan: someone – typically elderly and ill-accustomed to cellphones – gets a call from somebody saying only “it’s me” and frantically pleading for help, usually in the form of wired cash. But when the novel’s main character tries the scam, he’s drawn into a bizarrely warped reality in which the scam itself seems to be cloning and scrambling the identities of the scammers – a reality in which it really is “me.” I was quietly thrilled throughout.
6 Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Tor) – Ada Palmer’s superb “Terra Ignota” series started with Too Like the Lightning and continues with this second story set in an unfoldingly weird future in which collectivist evils lurk just underneath a seemingly idyllic surface. I went into this second book intentionally stubborn, wanting it to earn its dramatic freight without relying on its much-praised predecessor – and it completely did, drawing me in again with an unforgettable cast of characters.
5 Borne by Jeff Vandermeer (FSG) – Jeff Vandermeer won a great many fans with his “Southern Reach” trilogy, and I wasn’t one of them – so I was wary in approaching this story of a young scavenger in a dystopian future who salvages a strange blob of protoplasmic bio-mass, dubs it Borne, and gradually comes to like its company. But the book is wonderful, always pushing itself past the genre’s easy answers and, despite its bizarre setting and cast, reaching its best registers by dramatizing the growth of a friendship.
4 The Waking Land by Callie Bates (Random House) – Again, I won’t use this year-end list as an opportunity to argue with the publisher’s decision to more or less market this fantastic debut novel by Callie Bates as adult fiction when it’s clearly YA; the book is outstanding in either category, the lushly-imagined story of a young woman accused of murder who must flee her adopted homeland and return to her own people, who are hated for the very magical abilities that are beginning to awaken inside her. As far as I can tell, this is Bates’ debut, and it’s a very impressive one.
3 After On by Rob Reid (Del Rey) – The conceit at the heart of this joyfully readable novel is so tired it should by rights doom the whole enterprise: Phluttr, an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-data-mining social media network plugged into hundreds of millions of lives and operating with an agenda of its own. But Reid’s inventiveness and sheer storytelling energy save his book from its own plot at every turn and make mankind’s haphazard struggle against the network’s allure totally involving.
2 Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tor) – The great Nancy Kress here returns to the world of her Nebula Award-winning 2014 novella “Yesterday’s Kin” with a taut and marvelously controlled story – the first in a projected series – about an Earth on the doorstep of first contact, in this case with an alien species parked in their spaceship in New York Harbor. Like all Kress aliens, these are being worryingly enigmatic, and Kress unfolds the story perfectly.
1 Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill (Harper Voyager) – There’s surely some deeper irony in the fact that the best SFF novel of a year’s worth of SFF novels specializing in showcasing their human characters contains no human characters, but even so, that’s the opening plot of Cargill’s fantastic novel set on a future Earth in which humans are extinct and only robots remain – some few independent, most co-opted by massive (and of course malevolent) AI conglomerates. It shouldn’t be possible for Toaster V.S. Toaster to elicit interest, much less empathy, but this slam-bang novel pulls it off right from the first chapter.
December 10th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Mystery!
As Arthur Conan Doyle discovered a century ago, the sticky part about creating a great detective or sleuthing team is that your readers are going to want their adventures to continue indefinitely, and in all but a tiny handful of instances, your readers pay the bills. So murder mystery authors tend to end up writing a series of adventures starring, increasingly improbably, the same cast of characters – aging with glacial slowness (again, with a few exceptions), trotting out their catch-phrases on cue, surviving nightmarish plots, and living to sleuth another day. The natural expectation is that such books-in-series will rapidly diminish in quality, and for most of them, hoo-boy, that’s true. But over and over, this year was the exception that proved the rule – these are the ten best mysteries of the year, and virtually all of them are books-in-series:
10 The Whole Art of Detection by Lyndsay Faye (The Mysterious Press) – You could hardly have a list of mystery fiction without including Sherlock Holmes, now could you? The year featured the usual handful of Holmes pastiche fiction, but this volume, collecting all of Faye’s Strand magazine Holmes stories (and a couple of newly-published stories). Those stories are durably both the best things in any given issue of the magazine and the best Holmes-fiction written in any year, so this volume is a treat.
9 Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr (Putnam) – It was probably likewise inevitable that a new Kerr novel starring dour, redoubtable Bernie Gunther would show up on this list, but there’s no element of blind momentum involved: most of the books-in-series on the list this year are here because they’re the best books so far in their respective series, and that’s certainly the case with Prussian Blue, the most ambitious Bernie Gunther novel yet, splitting its action between 1939 Germany at the heart of the Nazi upper echelon and the 1956 French Riviera, where a dark shadow from his past catches up with an older and even more jaded Bernie. A terrific performance on Kerr’s part.
8 The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth (Viking) – This is the fifth in Airth’s series of mysteries starring Scotland Yard investigator (and then retired investigator) John Madden, the murder of an actress in 1938 and the conviction of her killer is opened again in 1949 and draws Madden out of retirement and into a world that seems far more sordid and complex than it did before the war. These Madden mysteries have always been lean, knowing delights, and as with so many books on this list, the series is every bit as strong now as it was when it began.
7 Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper) – In this hefty, immensely rewarding novel from Horowitz – one of the only stand-alone volumes on this list – the more a long-suffering editor reads into the latest manuscript of her best-selling but irritating mystery author, the most convinced she is that the manuscript is trying to tell a deeper story. I am, of course, a big fan of Horowitz’ “Alex Rider” novels, but the sheer literary virtuosity of this novel is of course orders of magnitude more impressive than books in which a floppy-haired teenager repeatedly saves the world.
6 The Body at the Brothel by Richard Waring (Peppertree Press) – Two ancient Roman murder mysteries back-to-back at this point in the list, and both of them from authors who ought to be better known. The first one is this delightful novel by Richard Waring starring a crime-solving husband and wife in a first-century Rome populated by colorful characters. The novel is extremely well-constructed, and it’s also a fine example of something that only makes this one appearance on my list this year: a playful murder mystery.
5 Fortune’s Fool by Albert Bell (Perserverance Press) – Bell’s sixth novel featuring Pliny the Younger as its unlikely crime-solver has a lamentable title (if a tag from Shakespeare has been used as the title of over 500 books, it’s no longer a tag from Shakespeare – it’s a cliché, and it’s always a bad idea to title your book with a cliché) and a delightful premise: Pliny’s workmen are renovating his villa on Lake Como when a skeleton falls out of one of the walls. Since the villa was once owned by his illustrious uncle – and since he’s unabashedly curious – Pliny of course investigates, and Bell balances that half of his book expertly with the other half, the tensions in Pliny’s personal life.
4 The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam) – MacNeal’s latest novel featuring Maggie Hope features our intrepid heroine deep in enemy territory: she’s an undercover Special Operations agent in Nazi-occupied Paris, trying to discover the truth behind the disappearance of her half-sister and inevitably getting drawn into the case of another vanished agent – all of which she handles with the combination of steady courage and mordant humor that fans of this series have come to expect.
3 Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books) – McKinty’s police thrillers starring hang-dog Detective Sean Duffy almost count as guilty pleasures: they’re written in whip-cord tense prose and feature almost clockwork twists and turns, each more improbable than the last. McKinty dutifully creates a gritty, real-world atmosphere to his Sean Duffy books – this one features a seedy character mysteriously murdered – but then he loads them with page-turning improbabilities that makes the books enormously readable and no more likely than the Oz books.
2 Knife Creek by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books) – This time, the series recurring character is Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, and this latest latest installment has an intensely gripping opening: Bowditch is tasked with culling an exploding population of feral hogs and discovers in the woods the hastily-hidden corpse of a baby. Doiron expertly deepens things from that starting-point and widens the story into the best Bowditch mystery he’s yet written.
1 The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press) – The underlying premise of this, the best mystery of 2017, is similar to an entry at the top of this list: Ben Pastor’s complicated main character, Martin Bora, is an ethical man in a wildly unethical world. Bora is a Wehrmacht officer who’s quietly horrified by the Nazis, and in this latest adventure he’s investigating the brutal murder of a group of civilians in Nazi-occupied Crete. The suspects seem obvious, but Bora looks deeper, and Pastor’s storytelling has never been more textured or assured than it is in this book.
December 9th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Children’s & YA!
I read more kid’s books and more YA in 2017 than in any previous year, and as usual, I ended up feeling greatly rewarded by that decision: I soaked up the urgency that’s the hallmark of so much YA, and I soaked up the pure delight that so often brings children’s books to life. The combination opens doors off the main hallways of my usual reading, and even when the subject matter was dark, this was a tremendously rejuvenating experience that led me to lots and lots of new books. These were the best of them:
10 Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Young-Ullman (FSG) – The first book on our list is also the most ambitious on the list, the fractured and multi-faceted story of the relationship between young Ingrid and her opera-singer mother Margot-Sophia, a story that’s told in flashes forward and backward as Ingrid takes readers through the surprisingly gripping process of trying to understand her own life.
9 At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse) – This psychologically intricate story – from one of the best YA authors working today – centers on a boy named Ozzie, who’s becoming reluctantly convinced that the universe is ending, one deleted chunk of reality at a time. One of those chunks was his best friend (and boyfriend) Tommy, and the story Hutchinson builds from there is both fascinating and touching.
8 A Place to Read by Leigh Hodgkinson (Bloomsbury) – This delightful book is pitched to the very youngest readers, but there isn’t a bookworm in the world who won’t instantly identify with its little hero’s ongoing attempts to find the perfect reading spot. My own such spot as 2017 draws to a close is a small sofa by a window (with a fuzzy puppy sleeping on my head), but the quest – the quest is real!
7 Monster’s New Undies by Samantha Berger (Scholastic Press) – If ever there were a kid’s book that epitomized why I love this genre so much, it’s this tense tale of a little monster who deeply loves his worn old undies and is doggedly certain he doesn’t need new ones. And in addition to the tale itself, Tad Carpenter’s insanely cheering illustrations had me smiling throughout. I speak with authority when I say: you don’t need to wear undies to love this book.
6 Life on Mars by John Agee (Dial) – The intrepid young astronaut who lands on Mars intent on discovering indigenous life isn’t easily daunted – he leaves his spaceship and looks everywhere. The fun of Agee’s terrific book comes the fact that our hero is thwarted in his big discovery by random bad timing: he’s never quite looking in the right direction. Right up to the twist on the last page, this book is a pure delight.
5 Rodzilla by Rob Sanders/Dan Santat (McElderry Books) – This brightly-colored story of a monster called Rodzilla who’s on the loose and stomping (and barfing on) a city full of frightened people will be instantly and perhaps a touch ruefully recognizable to any parents dealing with either a toddler or a fuzzy little puppy: the terror, the destruction … and also the clumsy affection, all perfectly portrayed.
4 Strange Fire by Tommy Wallach (Simon & Schuster) – This dark and insightful novel is the long-range sequel to Wallach’s fantastic novel We All Looked Up, in which a giant asteroid is headed straight for Earth. Strange Fire takes place thousands of years later and features the tribal, dystopian humanity that survived the planet-killer. As in that earlier work, Wallach here brings a tightly-knit central cast of characters to vivid life on the page.
3 Among the Red Stars by Gwen Katz (HarperTeen) – Gwen Katz puts at the heart of her story the memorable young heroine Valka, an eerily talented aviator who enlists in the Russian war effort against the Germans in the Second World War. She joins the all-female group of sky warriors known as the Night Witches, and although Katz does a crackerjack job on the book’s many actions sequences (a thing most YA novels either do poorly or not at all), her most wonderful achievement in these pages is the creation of Valka herself.
2 We Now Return to Regular Life by Martin Wilson (Dial) – This raw and oddly elegant novel revolves around the hoary concept of a missing person who returns: three years ago, Sam Walsh disappeared. Now, suddenly, he’s back, which fills his sister Beth and his best friend Josh with hundreds of questions – Beth about what happened to him while he was gone, and Josh, who has romantic feelings for Sam, wants to know how things might stand between them. But Martin Wilson turns the simple program of this plot into much deeper and more satisfying story of doubt and change.
1 Shark Dog! By Ged Adamson (HarperCollins) – In this whimsically delightful book, a world-famous explorer and his little daughter discover a shark dog – part dog, part shark – and bring the boisterous little freak home, where he makes lots of friends, raises lots of eyebrows, and eventually begins to pine for his fellow shark dogs. The explorer and his daughter make the tough decision to bring him back to his distant home, and the book’s ending will bring a smile to anybody who’s ever taken a strange little life-form into their home.
December 9th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Translations!
The comparative percentages of literature in translation available on the American book market are predictably embarrassing, but even so, there were enough first-rate translations to keep me busy all year, and since two of the books that eventually made it onto this list were originally composed in languages I don’t read, it’s worth taking a moment to point out what translators have been saying for centuries: accuracy is only half the battle. Translators are also responsible for fidelity, and since the two qualities are at least equally important, I tend to consider a translation outstanding if it succeeds in the latter, even if I can’t personally verify its success in the former. That little technicality now behind us, let’s proceed to the best English-language translations of the year:
10 The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Lawrence Ellsworth (Pegasus Books) – Impossible that this huge, delightful, and lesser-known Dumas epic sequel to The Three Musketeers wouldn’t be on the list! Translator Ellsworth has done a superb job in the deceptively tricky task of conveying the author’s lack of art and surfeit of conviction. All of Dumas feels like a gift, but a Dumas I’d never read before? Sheer bliss.
9 The Confessions by St. Augustine, translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden (Random House) – Ruden is a brilliant translator, and here she’s found a perfect match for her skills, one of the strangest and most immediately personal texts in the canon of any era, much less the ancient world. Her translation captures that immediacy better than any English translation has done before.
8 The Aeneid of Virgil, translated from the Latin by David Ferry (University of Chicago) – Veteran translator David Ferry was very veteran – in his early 90s – when he produced this translation of the Aeneid, but the single most amazing thing about the book is that although it’s wise, it’s never wintry. Here Virgil’s epic brims with brutal energy.
7 Poets of the Bible, translated by Willis Barnstone (WW Norton) – Barnstone has made a long career out of teasing the often recondite poetry of the Bible into supple and beautiful English, and this latest volume broadens that endeavor wonderfully, ranging all over the Old and New Testaments. Willis’ skills as a translator have grown steadily even from their prodigious beginnings decades ago; now they’re almost eerily effective in making wallpaper-familiar verses seem new.
6 Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, translated from the Russian by Michael Katz (Liveright) – This translation joins a tall pile of English-language versions of Crime and Punishment, but Katz’s book stands out even so for its perfect capture of Dostoevsky’s brittle, chattering genius. I’ve liked virtually every translation of this book that I’ve read, but the headlong strangeness of this one makes it my top choice.
5 Bookshops by Jorge Carrión, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Biblioasis) – Carrión’s subject is one that will be familiar to virtually every devoted bookworm: the bookshops that make up such a glowing part of our lives. Here the author concentrates on not only the history of bookshops in general but also on a handful of specific charmed locations, and the many appeals of the resulting book have been translated wonderfully by Peter Bush.
4 Jottings Under Lamplight by Lu Xun, edited by Eileen Cheng & Kirk Denton (Harvard University Press) – This lovely volume of the great Chinese man of letters translates sixty-two of his chatty, aphoristic, deceptively placid essays into a rich, flowing English, and since a third of the pieces presented here have never been translated into English before, this volume represents a huge improvement over all earlier attempts to introduce this author to the Western world – and as you’d expect from this publisher, the all-important critical apparatus is both erudite and accessible.
3 The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press) – Quite a few of the texts featured on our Best Translations list this time around are towering classics of the Western canon, and none more towering than this! But instead of giving his readers the stiff classic with which they’re very familiar, he crafts in this version of the New Testament something strange and clipped and strident, both sound in scholarship and distinctly memorable in tone. And Hart’s own critical apparatus is equally good.
2 The Odyssey, translated from the Greek by Emily Wilson (WW Norton) – I first approached Emily Wilson’s Odyssey with a feeling of vicarious shame, since this is the very first translation of Homer’s epic into English ever published by a woman – in 2017. But my appreciation of the historical achievement quickly gave way to my appreciation of the literary one: like so many other volumes on this list, this is a version of its source material that’s unlike any previous version – it’s leaner, faster, and at times more disarmingly colloquial than any of its predecessors … a tremendous reading experience.
1 Poet in Spain, Federico Garcia Lorca, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Arvio (Knopf) – The announcement of this selection of Lorca’s poetry, the best translation of 2017, at first left me indifferent; I’ve read and grappled with and loved Lorca’s poetry for a long time, and while I’ve read and enjoyed many English-language renditions, in every case there’s been that slight inner slumping that happens when a translation isn’t doing full justice to the magic of the original. Not so in poet Sarah Arvio’s case: her absolutely luminous translations of Lorca are the first ones I’ve ever read that didn’t immediately send me hunting for the originals – they’re poems on their own terms, and the collection is a beautiful tribute to Lorca’s work.
December 8th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Fiction Debuts!
2017 was an encouragingly prosperous year for fiction debuts. First novels in the 21st century are usually the very frailest of hot-house flowers, seeded exclusively in their authors’ family histories, given form by their authors’ personal details, and hand-raised with delicate care in the moist air and steady sunlight of the world’s 1.4 million academic writing workshops. First novels in the 21st century are, in other words, typically insufferable. So the bumper-crop of stand-out debuts this year was cause for celebration, as was the quality that ran through most of them: an assured willingness on the part of their authors to let stories flow into deeper channels – a willingness to embrace subtlety even when, especially when, those stories don’t seem very subtle at all. It’s always a good sign when I have trouble limiting a list to ten winners, but here they are:
10. Live from Cairo by Ian Bassingthwaighte (Simon & Schuster) – On its multifaceted surface levels, this debut novel is about a cast of characters complicatedly connected in various ways to Dalia, an Iraqi refugee trapped in the Egypt of 2011, an Egypt roiling with revolution and chaos. But as with so many of the debut novels on our list this year, Live from Cairo just keeps piling complexity onto complexity, gradually creating a story that’s both dark and, with surprisingly and delightful regularity, darkly funny.
9 Chemistry by Weike Wang (Knopf) – My pointed rant about the slow and apparently unopposed in-creep of YA novels to the world of adult literary fiction will have to wait until the new year. The folks at Knopf decided, for whatever reason, to market Weike Wang’s YA debut about a hapless young female chemistry graduate student blundering into love as adult fiction, and the story Wang tells is so sharply and wonderfully done that I’m hardly going to omit it on a technicality, however troubling!
8 The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Matthews (Little, Brown) – Long before I read the first page of this big, brawling historical novel about a charismatic Irish immigrant to Jazz Age New York, I had my guard up, for two reasons: a) the premise is a veritable Petri dish for breeding cliches, and b) they’re cliches I tend to like. But the sheer confidence of the storytelling here won me over, and is so often the case with this year’s debuts, all the book’s easy-seeming decisions steadily complicated themselves.
7 Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Every creative choice this book makes should have annoyed me. In tracing the generational pathos of a Palestinian family through its multiple immigration crises (they’re uprooted first from their home in Nablus, then from Kuwait City, and eventually from a virtual Baedeker of places), the author name-checks so many hot-button issues that her book should have shown up on a very different Stevereads list. But the searing intelligence and sharp prose Hala Alyan brings to her story made me forget all those reservations.
6 Sonata in K by Karen An-hwei Lee (Ellipsis) – This debut novella about seeming Kafka-clone called Kafka-san and the slightly befuddled chauffeur who introduces him to modern-day Los Angeles begins surreal and just keeps getting more surreal as the misadventures continue to twist and turn, always filtered through the literary prism of Kafka’s still-baffling prose. The thought-provoking low-burn hilarity that results is reminiscent of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back but has a weirdness all its own.
5 Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker (Ecco) – The financial meltdown of 2008 is the fulcrum on which this generous – and wonderfully sardonic – debut turns; a wealthy Connecticut family is torn apart when its patriarch is suddenly revealed to be at the heart of a scandal and all the women in his life must suddenly scramble to re-assess their lives. Baker evokes these several interconnected worlds with an assurance that’s downright startling in a debut.
4 Bed-Stuy is Burning by Brian Platzer (Atria) – Like so many books on this list, there’s enormously more to this novel about the upheavals accompanying the gentrification of a New York neighborhood than what appears on the surface. Platzer works counter-intuitive subtlety into every layer of his story and keeps the whole intricate clockwork of it at an arm’s length that reminded me of the great, forgotten Budd Schulberg. An intensely memorable debut.
3 The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis (Pegasus Books) – Talk about a memorable debut! I read Janet Ellis’ debut The Butcher’s Hook in its US debut and was beguiled the whole time by the deepeningly perverse story of sheltered 18th-century London ingénue Anne and her disastrously stubborn choice of husband. Ellis warps and twists her story in delightful and intensely controlled ways, until all the book’s opening conventions are exploded in ways that are both dark and oddly playful.
2 Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar (Little, Brown) – The basic action of this slim novel – a Czech cosmonaut aboard a spaceship to Venus has either picked up an inquisitive extraterrestrial guest or hallucinates that he has – is, like so many of the books on this list, deceptively simple. Kalfar weaves deeper resonances into the thoughts and worries of Jakub Procházka than I would have thought possible, until the very simplicity of the story becomes a kind of ongoing commentary.
1 See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Grove Atlantic) – The best debut work of fiction in a year very much crowded with strong debuts was this historical novel about the notorious 1892 tragedy in which the parents of Lizzie Borden were found butchered in the family home. Lizzie herself stood trial for the murders, but this beautiful, richly disturbing novel is concerned only with the living Borden household – and the unexpected darknesses that might have laid the groundwork for the killings. It’s a familiar refrain from the list this time around, but even so: I had to keep reminding myself that this is a debut novel.
December 7th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Guilty Pleasures!
In any year, it’s always tricky to define what I mean by guilty pleasure. After all, in one sense there aren’t any guilty pleasures in reading and there couldn’t be: reading is the riot of the soul, and it admits no guilt. But in another sense, there’s always more Henry James that you really ought to get to. Most books you read can be construed in at least some kind of way as being at least some kind of small progress toward the unreachable goal of reading what used to be called “improving” books. But not so the entries on this list! They are here to waste your time, and of all such books I read in 2017, these were the best at it:
10. The White Road by Sarah Lotz (Mulholland Books) – The plot and pacing of this novel about an “ex-adrenaline junky and slacker” facing danger and betrayal at the top of the world on Mt. Everest is so feverish you almost want to dose it with quinine and send it to bed. Like so many of the guilty pleasures on this list, the plot is hysterically absurd – but the book itself deliciously bad.
9. The Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry (St. Martin’s) – Maberry is in many ways a master of providing readers with guilty pleasures, and this terrific book, starring he-man hero Joe Ledger and a batch of villainous mechanical dogs, among many other villainous things and people. Maberry can pack a whole novel’s worth of action into one chapter, and Dogs of War is his busiest book yet.
8. Gunmetal Gray by Mark Greaney (Berkley) – When it comes to he-man heroes, Greaney’s “Gray Man” is certainly no slouch – heck, in this book he’s in vicious hand-to-hand combat for his life in a hotel room before he’s even unpacked his undies. The Gray Man, Court Gentry, has been employed by the CIA, hunted by the CIA, and then welcomed back to the CIA, so a sense of deep disorientation permeates these books, and Greaney uses that to great, cheesy advantage.
7. The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter (Crown) – Despite the occasional pandering college course, H. G. Wells’ original novella War of the Worlds is itself a prime example of a guilty pleasure, the lurid tale of a Martian invasion of Earth. In Baxter’s breathless, totally convincing sequel, the Martians come back for Round Two, and the packed melodrama that ensues is a fitting tribute to the master.
6. The Legion of Regrettable Super-Villains by Jon Morris (Quirk Books) – Morris follows up his hilarious The League of Regrettable Superheroes with this equally-hilarious guilty pleasure, focusing on the bad guys, the not-so-bad guys, and the badly-imagined guys, some of the worst, most pathetic, most laughable super-villains in comics history. Your reading time could be so much better spent – it’s wonderful.
5. Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child (Doubleday) – Child’s own version of a recurring he-man hero, “enigmalogist” (try saying it) Jeremy Logan travels to the back-of-beyond Adirondacks to investigate claims that suggest, golly, a werewolf, and there literally isn’t one single detail of the book’s plot that can’t be accurately predicted by page 4. But trivia like that has never slowed down a sterling hack like Child, and this book will make you hope it never does.
4. Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix (Quirk) – The research Hendricks has poured into this survey of the covers – and trends, and authors – of the pulp horror novels from the 1970s and ’80s is genuine and groundbreaking, hardly a matter of guilty pleasure at all. But the subject of that research places this fantastic, eye-popping volume squarely in this category. This is a careful, comprehensive study of books so gawd-awful they shouldn’t even be touched, much less read and studied. If you loved these books as much as I did, you can’t miss this wonderful waste of your time.
3. Dead on Arrival by Matt Richtel (Morrow) – Sometimes – often, in fact – you can spot a guilty pleasure even before you read it, and this irresistible novel by Matt Richtel is one of those: the cover shows a shuttered airplane window entirely covered in blood. And if you’re picky enough to require more than the cover, there’s the super-cheesy plot: the people on board a plane landing in Colorado learn that they’re practically the only people left alive and uninfected by a mystery illness. It’s a no-brainer of a premise, and certainly there are no brains in its execution – you’ll love it.
2. Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia by Adam Bray & Cole Horton (DK) – Surely “a visual encyclopedia of Star Wars” is a note-perfect synonym for “guilty pleasure”? In this big volume – crafted with the precision excellence of all DK productions – every single thing in the sprawling Star Wars universe is given a clear mug shot, a proper name, and a few bits of ultra-geeky clarification. Reading time disappears as though these pages were a bottomless sarlacc pit.
1. Treat! By Christian Vieler (Black Dog & Leventhal) – The premise of this, the guiltiest of all the year’s guilty pleasures, is quite simple: hold up a treat in front of a bunch of dogs, toss the treat, and photograph the instant they snatch it out of the air (or fail to). But that premise doesn’t do justice to how hypnotic these pages are: picture after beautiful picture of dog after dog caught in exactly the goofy moment when ecstasy is achieved. It’s virtually impossible close this book and return to Henry James.
December 6th, 2017
Best Books of 2017 – Reprints!
Prior to looking at all the year’s new offerings, I like to look at all the year’s reprints, to navigate again the weird and often intensely personal vagaries that bring so many reprint volumes to market. It’s true that sometimes a publisher can simply be fulfilling a contract or keeping one eye on the main chance, but equally often a new edition of some older work hints at a personal passion that’s managed to talk itself through who knows how many editorial meetings and onto the printed page. 2017 was a very healthy year for such reprints. These were the best of them:
10. The New Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (WW Norton) – Our first book is no stranger to being reprinted! Mary Shelley’s iconic horror story must surely be one of the most-reprinted novels of modern times, and here the folks at WW Norton give it the deluxe annotated treatment under the expert handling of editor Leslie Klinger. Annotated editions usually find a way to annoy me, but this one was a delight from start to finish.
9. The World of William Joyce (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) – The pure gift the folks at Atheneum have concocted here is a lovely collection of uniform hardcover editions of the inimitable children’s picture books created by the legendary William Joyce, books including such classics as Santa Calls and Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo. The beauty of his artwork and the whimsy of his storytelling are on full display in this beautiful set.
8. Culture Fever by Stephen Akey (Orchises) – It’s one of the rarest and sweetest pleasure of being an editor: seeing a talented writer you worked with early go on to a much-deserved larger audience, and here at the end of the life of Open Letters Monthly, in 2017 I got to experience that pleasure one more time – this time in the case of freelancer Stephen Akey, whose meditations on prose and poetry are a stunning combination of the personal and the oracular. Some of the essays collected in Culture Fever originally appeared on OLM, and they re-read even better than they read originally.
7. Collected Fiction by Mary McCarthy (Library of America) – The Library of America is never very far from my Best Reprints list every year, and the reason is simple: for every boxed piece of Kurt Vonnegut yak-crap they produce, they also produce a glittering gem like this set, collecting the lean, acerbic novels of Mary McCarthy in a format so much more durable than the pulpy drugstore paperbacks where I first encountered them. And once again, the re-readings were thrilling.
6. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams (Library of America) – A second showing this time around for the Library of America, here presenting readers with a beautiful boxed set of the enormous diary kept by John Quincy Adams for most of this life. Like many of the reprints on the list this year, this was a production that needed to happen, an enormous improvement over any other version of the work currently in existence. These diaries are the most remarkable document ever written by a US President, and now they finally have the edition they’ve always deserved.
5. The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics) – The essays of Elizabeth Hardwick have been the secret, precious currency of the literary world for decades, and now all those dog-eared copies of the original collection-volumes can stand down, since The New York Review of Books has produced a backpack-handy paperback for readers to dog-ear all over again. I’m already on my second copy, but it’s a bright joy to see her in bookstores again.
4. Prince Valiant Volumes 1-3 Gift Set by Hal Foster (Fantagraphics) – The sheer visual opulence of these Fantagraphics reprint volumes of Hal Foster’s initial run on the comic strip that made his reputation is, oddly enough, as much a call-back as it is an improvement; yes, the folks at Fantagraphics have done a stunning job of remastering Foster’s original colors and putting the whole thing on luminous paper stock … but the spread-it-out-and-lose-yourself size of these reprints was a part of the original Sunday comics experience, now as thoroughly gone from the world as is the medieval world of Val himself. Like so many of the entries on this list, this is more than simply a nice reprint – it’s a full-fledged restoration.
3. Thalia by Larry McMurtry (Liveright) – This hefty, formidable volume reprints Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne, and The Last Picture Show, all set in the fictional Texas small town of Thalia, and all featuring McMurtry’s brilliance as shifting the register of his prose, from bleak, forensic character study to sweeping adventure narrative to – in four bravura scenes scattered throughout these three books – perfectly-executed slapstick comedy. A volume like this not only makes it easy for new readers to discover McMurtry – it also makes it easy for older readers to see that he’s worth re-discovering.
2. Powers of Darkness by Bram Stoker & Valdimar Asmundsson (Overlook Press) – In every year, at least a couple of reprints will be not only excellent but downright bizarre, and in 2017 that prize was claimed early and firmly by this painstakingly reconstructed English-language translation of the original Icelandic translation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. When Valdimar Asmundsson translated Dracula for Icelandic readers, he took increasingly hallucinatory liberties with the original text, producing an alien and – heresy! – dazzlingly entertaining alternate version of the book, here lovingly presented by the folks at Overlook Press.
1. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope (Everyman’s Library) – This new Everyman’s Library edition of the last of Trollope’s Palliser novels likewise enters this list – and heads it – because it’s invaluably more than simply a nice-looking reprint of the original. When it came time in 1880 for Trollope to publish in book form the serial he’d run the year before, he cut great chunks of text from the manuscript, and this Everyman’s edition for the first time restores those chunks, giving readers The Duke’s Children as Trollope actually wrote it, over a century after the fact. Like so many other books on this reprints list, this one represents a genuine benchmark – as well as a great reading experience.
November 24th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics don’t seem quite right until you actually see them in the familiar restrained format, staring out at you with that quintessential Penguin Classic quiet assurance (in this case considerably abetted by a stark cover illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng). Then you start to think, “Well yes, this is probably right. I’ve certainly never been able to forget [X] – and maybe that’s as good a definition of ‘classic’ as anything else.” And slowly, gradually, you experience the quietly wonderful feeling of adding a classic to the world’s roster, of admitting to the ranks another book that’s going to go right on making its strange and irreducible claims to generations of readers, whether the author’s around to disavow it, whether interpreters are around to claim they spotted it first … that’s going to go straight to the readers and sticking with them.
Such a book is certainly Anna Kavan’s Ice, which now becomes a Penguin Classic on the 50th anniversary of its publication in 1967. Many lurid cheap paperbacks have followed from that debut, and many readers, famous and obscure, have encountered the book at their library or on the metal spinner-rack of their small-town dry goods store and read its weird story of an unnamed man crossing a broken, ice-stalked version of modern reality in search of a “glass girl” who seems never quite willing to materialize – read the story and then tried to understand it, only to find that it, too, never quite materializes. This is a fantasy about sick longing, a quest novel in which the search erodes the searcher, and hard at every one of its perimeters is looming ice. Kavan, who wrote many more-or-less conventional novels under the name Helen Ferguson, wrote this one under not a pseudonym but a fictional character’s name, and speculation has been rife ever since about the extent to which Ice is a parable about her own struggles with drug addiction.
Either way, what she creates in these pages is a telescoping gallery of horrors. The man’s quest evolves into a tour through all the depravities of an intensely depraved world, and in scene after scene, monsters creep through the cold up to cabin windows, pause to listen to the talk inside, and hear stories of yet more monsters:
Now she was with a man she called father who sat just inside the window. Because he was so close to me, his was the first voice I understood. He was relating the legend of the fjord, how every year at the winter solstice a beautiful girl had to be sacrificed to the dragon that lived in its depths. The other voices gradually became silent when he began describing the rite itself. “We untie her as soon as we get her up there on the rock. She must struggle a bit, otherwise the dragon might think we’d palmed off a dead girl on him. The water foams down below. The monster’s great scaly coils appear. Then we hurl her down. The whole fjord becomes a maelstrom, blood and foam flying in all directions.”
“They might have been talking about a football match between their team and a rival town,” we’re told.
This Penguin Classic edition of Ice is introduced by the talented novelist Jonathan Lethem, and that turns out to be both good news and bad news. He opens his Introduction, for instance, like this:
Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There’s only one. It’s cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach. It may even seem to be following you.
There are 184 moons in Earth’s solar system. 11 of them are extremely similar to Earth’s moon. 4 of them are virtually identical to Earth’s moon. Earth’s moon is not white. Earth’s moon is not defiant. Earth’s moon is not frantically on the move. Earth’s moon is not out of reach – men have visited it, there are pictures. Earth’s moon does not seem to be following you, although Anna Kavan’s Ice will, especially if you’re reading it for the first time. As Lethem more helpfully writes “Though Ice is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror.”
November 20th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics are beautiful productions in and of themselves, quite separate from the beauty (or, in the case of some authors reprinted with inexplicable regularity, the lack thereof) of the prose involved. Conspicuous along these lines is the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition line, which puts wonderful extra effort into making paperback classics worth treasuring on the outside and the inside. These editions have gatefold covers, deckle edges, and, most noticeably, newly-commissioned and often deliberately off-kilter cover art. And while on rare occasions that cover-art can go awry (the less said about the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Anne of Green Gables, the better – although the stuff inside was as wonderful as ever), most often its both arresting and, often playfully, subversive.
In the case of the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the cover represents a natural pairing: illustrating Conrad’s novella of frightening human degradation is comic book artist Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. Mignola is a virtuoso of dark spaces in his art, and looming behind the semi-human figure on the cover is a tangled, swollen heart – in a pointed gesture of creepiness, the vein are embossed.
A reader who can resist embossed heart-veins is made of sterner stuff than I am, but even for such die-hard holdouts, this Conrad edition offers a mighty strong temptation in the form of an Introduction by Adam Hochschild, author of the bestselling King Leopold’s Ghost – in one sense a perfect choice, considering how extensively Hochschild has written about the same forces of colonialism that drive a wedge of madness right through the middle of Conrad’s book. Hochschild is a sensitive reader of fiction, but in this case he’s calling for more:
We miss much if we look at the novel only as a work of imaginative literature. It is also a remarkable description of “the actual facts of the case,” the Scramble for Africa at its most naked. The river that Marlow travels up may never be named – and, indeed, it doesn’t always physically resemble the Congo River, nor does the Inner Station much resemble the Stanley Falls Station Conrad saw … But consider the figure at the novel’s center, Mr. Kurtz, the brilliant, ambitious, supremely rapacious hoarder of ivory. Kurtz is sketched with only a few bold strokes, but he has become our time’s most famous literary villain: the lone white man with his dreams of culture and grandeur, his great store of ivory, and his barbarous fiefdom carved out of the jungle.
Of course the main draw here is the same as in all Penguin Classics: the book itself. I recently re-read and loved Maya Jasanoff’s great new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch, so I was primed and ready to re-read Heart of Darkness, which I confess I’d never really enjoyed all that much and whose vicarious elevation in the wake of Apocalypse Now I resisted with a degree of stubbornness that was doubtless unfair to Conrad.
My worry about him has always been the disquieting murk of his prose, and this latest re-reading of Heart of Darkness didn’t exactly sooth that worry: Conrad is a prolix writer. The wits who’ve been commenting for 100 years that his English reads like a fair-to-middling translation from some very different and perhaps far more glottal language have always been delivering a grain of truth. But this latest re-reading revealed slow (not to say sludgy) undercurrents in passages I’d always previously considered simple self-indulgence. I don’t know whether or not it was largely due to Maya Jasanoff’s book, but I navigated the undercurrents far more easily this time around and actually enjoyed myself in re-reading even fervid passages like this one:
“I let him run on, this papier-maché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and bye under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him. I had my shoulders against the wreck of my steamer, hauled up on the slope like the carcass of some big river animal. The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! Was in my nostrils, the high stillness of the primeval forests was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through the sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the ace of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?”
My other, non-Deluxe Penguin Classics edition of Heart of Darkness has the traditional Penguin black spine with white letters, but as is usually the case, this Deluxe Edition is easily superior, a slim, gorgeous thing in its own right and now haunted by Mike Mignola’s somber artwork. Complete with embossed veins.
November 14th, 2017
Our book today is an awkward, adorable little children’s classic from the bygone era of 1944: Georgie by Robert Bright, an old-school hack of the first water (and Boston Transcript alum, if those two things aren’t already redundant) who wrote a kids book about a lonely ghost and watched in bemused wonder as that book not only caught on with readers but went on to form the basis for what the 21st century would nauseatingly call a “brand.” Georgie, the little ghost, went on to have a dozen adventures, but the magic all started here, in an unassuming, poorly-drawn, and completely wonderful 95-cent paperback.
When we first meet Georgie, he’s a ghost who knows his place in the world, a happy ghost. He haunts the little old New England house of Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker, where every night at the same time he gives a step on the staircase a little creak and the door to the parlor a little squeak – and these are the signals everybody’s waiting for. When they hear their little ghost moving around at night, Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker know it’s time to go to bed; Herman the house cat knows it’s time to begin prowling for mice (and they presumably know to start hiding); Miss Oliver the owl knows it’s time to wake up and start hooting. It’s a perfect arrangement, and Georgie always has a smile on his ghostly face.
But then one day Mr. Whittaker decides to oil the parlor door and nail down the stair on the staircase. Suddenly there’s nothing for Georgie to do. The old couple falls asleep on the parlor couch; Herman the cat stops prowling for mice; Miss Oliver sleeps right through her usual wake-up time.
And in the rootless way of unemployed ghosts, Georgie soon decides to take up residence somewhere else. But we’re told – in one of the book’s most offhand and creepy asides – that every other house in the neighborhood already has a ghost. All but one: the dark and scary mansion of old Mr. Gloam is ghost-free – because Mr. Gloam himself is so mean no spirit will haunt him.
So Georgie goes to a drafty cow barn and stays there – idle and miserable – for “a lot of time,” through rainy days and cold, snowy days. It’s only after a long time that Miss Oliver flies over to the cow barn with word of an unexpected reprieve: the cold and the rain have loosened the floorboards in the old Whittaker place and rusted the hinges – Georgie is needed again! He enjoys a happy homecoming and gets right back to work causing the gentle creakings and squeakings by which everybody sets their own timetables.
Re-reading Georgie after all these years raised the same questions in my mind that I had the first time I read it: who is Georgie? Why is it that every single living thing in the book – Herman the cat, Miss Oliver the owl, the other ghosts, Mr. Gloam, the cow in the cow barn – can see Georgie, but Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker cannot? Is he perhaps the ghost of a long-lost son of theirs? And what happens if Mr. Whittaker decides to fix the stair again?
But I’m reminded that ghost stories always leave me asking the same kinds of questions. Earlier this year, I asked them all while watching David Lowery’s beautiful movie A Ghost Story, for instance. Fortunately, they don’t ever diminish my enjoyment – I loved Georgie all over again this time around.