I read weirdly. I re-read a lot (when I’m puzzling out a particular technical challenge in my writing, I often find myself reading to explore how other writers have handled the same problem; I also re-read for comfort; and because some stories/characters/worlds need to be revisited frequently). I read non-fiction, and I love books about the history of medicine, and the history of commonplace things like plumbing; otherwise, unless it’s on a topic about which I know very little, I tend to scan non-fiction looking for the specific research-bits I need. I read a lot of fiction that’s new to me, too, though it’s not always new fiction, per se.
What did I read in 2009? I can no longer read as fast or with the same demon focus I had when I was 15 (when I probably averaged 15-20 books a week) but I still read. At the dog park while throwing balls to my indefatigable dog, walking down the street, sitting on BART, stirring the soup, I usually have a book in my hand. And because I love you, I want to commend three good pieces of fiction I read this year to your attention.
Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson.
Damn. Also whizbang and shazamm! This is science fiction, all right, set in a 22nd Century in which all hell has broken loose, been reined in, and a US curiously like the America of the 1850s has arisen. This is a flat out astonishing book. The narrator is a naif. Or maybe a rustic. Things go on around him and he has no clue; yet the reader is never in doubt of what is really happening. His best friend, Julian Comstock, is hereditary heir to the Presidency of the United States, a theocracy that is wonderfully and fearfully drawn. Julian’s uncle, the sitting president, keeps trying to assassinate or put the boy in harm’s way, lest he become the focus of an uprising against his autocratic rule. Julian just wants–well, Julian wants to revive the lost artform of film. Part of what sets this book so firmly in a mid-19th century mindset is the language of the narration; you want to see voice as worldbuilding? Look no farther. It is possible to read future-story science fiction that delights, challenges, and amazes, without a rocket ship in sight. I commend it to you.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
This was a co-winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel this year, and it deserved it. For those who can’t relax until they’ve identified a source reference, I’ll tell you: it’s a fairy tale, “Snow White and Rose Red.” But Lanagan’s version is a brutal, sometimes delirious story about a woman whose sorrows lead her to find a safe place to raise her daughters. The real world intrudes, of course, as real worlds will. This is another book in which the language is intoxicating, and creates the world as much as the author’s set-dressing and storytelling. This is supposedly a YA–a YA that starts with a dwarf having sex with a prostitute (there’s a plot reason, I swear ) and contains incest, abortion, murder; any kid who’s grown up on a diet of Degrassi and Gossip Girl won’t blink, but a kid who prefers her fantasy elfy and sweet might. It’s a book about transformation, and the power of love, and hate. It’s not an easy book at times; people who prefer their prose style “transparent” may be put off by the lush, colloquial language at first. Stick with it. It’s an amazing book.
Among Others by Jo Walton
Okay, here I cheated a little. I got to read this in manuscript; it won’t be published until January 2011. So go reserve it now. It’s my favorite kind of fantasy: one where the world is the real world we move through every day, but where the pockets of magic and strangeness we don’t usually notice are laid out for the reader to see. I love Walton’s work–Tooth and Claw and the Farthing books in particular. But Among Others is, in the word of its protagonist/narrator, brilliant. It’s about a teenage girl in Wales whose family is just a little different–there’s magic on her mother’s side, and her father’s family are repressive, distant, English. She’s sent to the same fairly awful boarding school her English aunts went to. She, bookish and into science fiction and steeped in the lore of her mother’s family, doesn’t fit in at the school any more than she fits in with her Dad’s family. It’s about growing up. It’s about finding your power. It’s about finding your true people, and about reading and science fiction. It’s about facing what scares you. And it’s about the deep standing pools of magic and chaos that surround us, unseen, in our every day lives. The more I think about it, the more I want to read it again. Did I say it was brilliant? Cause it is.
So there you go. Three good books to add to your already overburdened stack of to-be-reads. Enjoy!